Statements from Tennessee politicians such as Sen. Bob Corker (R), Gov. Bill Haslam (R), and State Sen. Bo Watson (R) against the vote among Volkswagen (VW) workers to potentially form a union were “a clear violation of the law,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told ThinkProgress after an event on trade policy at the Center for American Progress.
The vote, which failed with 626 workers in favor and 712 opposed, ended the United Auto Worker’s (UAW) drive to unionize the plant in Chattanooga. The union has since filed an appeal of the vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming that politicians’ statements interfered and made it impossible to have a free election, as required by labor laws. Corker had told the press that VW was planning to build a new line of cars at the plant if the vote failed, a statement that the company denied, while Haslam said there would be “some ramifications” for the state’s ability to attract other businesses and Watson warned that it would risk state incentives for VW’s expansion.
“These are not people who made idle threats,” Trumka said. “These are people who had the ability to take away the lifeline for that company in that state,” which was a way of saying to workers, “if you vote for a union we’re going to take your livelihood away.” That’s a violation, he said, of the requirement that union elections be held in “laboratory conditions where people can vote without being threatened and intimidated.”
A hearing for UAW to make its case was just set for April 7. The union is asking that the election be thrown out and that it be allowed to hold another one. Some have warned it could be a tough case to make, as unions typically have to prove that interference in the election came at the bidding of the company, which remained neutral during the union drive process. But Trumka was optimistic. “I think those workers will get a new election,” he said. “We will win in laboratory conditions.”
Volkswagen may have been somewhat unique in its neutrality during the election and its support for a works council in the Chattanooga plant, or a formal process for management and workers to coordinate on a variety of safety and productivity issues. But Trumka felt that more companies, particularly multinational ones, could also support workers organizing. These companies come from union-friendly environments where their employees are organized, but “then they come to the United States and sink to the lowest level of labor relations in the world.” He’s hopeful he can “work with more companies who will say, ‘We want to treat our workers as assets to be invested in, rather than costs to be cut.’”
One way to fix that problem would be to adopt strict labor standards in trade deals. “They can create the climate where the standard goes up or they can create the climate where it goes down,” he said. If the International Labour Organization’s standards were adopted in trade deals, he explained that unions anywhere could bring a trade violation case against companies that violated them. “It starts with the original goals of the agreement,” he said. “NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was designed to create low wages. We want agreements that create shared prosperity.”
At the Center for American Progress event, he outlined just what a trade agreement that the AFL-CIO could support would look like. While the Obama administration is working on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Trumka said he is working with them and Congress to insert stricter rules not just on labor standards but on environmental, consumer, currency, and financial sector protections and to beef up the enforcement mechanisms. “In the TPP and talks with the European Union, we see the old NAFTA template,” he said, which he says drove down wages and put corporations in charge of drafting rules. “We need a complete change in approach.” He also called for more accountability and transparency in the negotiations, which must done “in the open” so that the public can weigh in.
While he said “maintain[s] some hope” that the agreements can be changed, particularly after an attempt to fast track the deals hit roadblocks, he admitted after the event that there’s a “slim chance” that they will be transformed along all of the principles he outlined.