Do American auto workers have an inferiority complex?
Do American auto workers have an inferiority complex? Do they suffer from such low self esteem that they believe they should be paid significantly less than their counterparts in other countries who build the same cars for the same company? Would they really prefer to have no say whatsoever in how their companies are run, even when their employers are keen to offer them a seat at the table?
Sadly, these are questions that need to be asked in the wake of last week’s decision by auto workers at a Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee to reject an effort by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to unionize the German owned factory. The no vote came as a pretty big surprise to UAW organizers, not least because a majority of the workers had reportedly signed cards favoring the union’s representation in creating a German-style works council at the plant.
There was also no opposition from VW management, who agreed to remain neutral in the process and had even invited UAW representatives onto the factory floor to explain the benefits of organizing. Still, even though their jobs were not under threat and their employers were supportive, a majority of the workers (712 to 626) voted against unionization. Much of the blame for the no vote is being assigned to the right-wing groups and Republican lawmakers in the state, who mounted a relentless, if predictable, anti-union campaign. While this blame is well deserved, the apparent willingness of so many workers to act against their own interests needs to be called into question as well.
Unlike most of the VW facilities worldwide, the Chattanooga plant does not have a works’ council, which brings workers together with management to establish the company’s policies and procedures. (Under US law, union representation is a pre-requisite to having a works’ council, which is why the UAW vote was necessary.) As things stand Chattanooga workers have no say in the company’s decision-making process or in any negotiations surrounding pay or work conditions. It should come as no surprise then that workers at this plant get paid considerably less than workers at other VW plants around the world who do have a say.
In Germany, for instance, auto workers at VW plants get paid an average of $67.14 an hour. That’s more than double the average hourly rate for an established unionized worker in Detroit, and it’s more than three times what the non unionized workers in Chattanooga can hope to earn. According to a company spokesperson, new hires at Chattanooga start at $14.50 an hour, a rate that gradually increases to $19.50 an hour after three years on the job.
This brings me back to my original question – do American workers have an inferiority complex that makes them willing to accept a lower salary than they deserve, and, if so, why? According to reports from the ground, one of the reasons many workers cited for opposing the unionization plans was that they were satisfied with their job and felt they were well paid. It’s true that with Tennessee being a so called “right to work” state, where wages are generally low and poverty is high, $19.50 an hour probably seems like a pretty good salary. But when their European counterparts, working for the same employers, doing the same work, make more than three times what they do, shouldn’t these workers be feeling less satisfied than screwed?
To be fair to the Tennessee auto workers, they have been relentlessly undermined by Republican lawmakers in the state who seem to think that their only route to job security (forget about prosperity) is to shut up, show up and accept whatever pay rate and working conditions their employers see fit to bestow on them. One of the scare tactics employed by US Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), in what seems like a flagrant (and possibly illegal) attempt to influence the vote, was to claim that he had it on good authority from the big bosses at VW that if the workers voted against the union, a new midsize SUV line would be manufactured at the Chattanooga plant. This claim was refuted by the plant’s CEO, Frank Fischer, who said the union vote would have no bearing on the SUV decision (although the company is now saying it might rethink building any more plants in the south). But that didn’t stop Corker from insisting that it was true.
It’s hardly surprising though that when faced with this kind of fear mongering, a majority of the workers did not feel sufficiently confident in their situation to avail of the rare chance afforded them to improve their lot. What a shame for these workers, and for American workers all over the south, that they didn’t.
The UAW had hoped to bring some of this respect and harmony to several non-unionized foreign owned auto plants in the south by agreeing to try the work’s council approach. Sadly, for the time being at least, their efforts have been derailed.
All is not yet lost, however, the UAW has vowed to fight on and has already been contacting workers at the Mercedes Benz plant in Vance, Alabama to try to get a work’s council set up there. Meanwhile, just days after the no vote in Chattanooga, VW announced that they were going to continue their efforts to establish labor representation and a works’ council at the plant. So much for Senator Corker’s claims that the company was anti-union.
We’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out, but hopefully next time round the workers will listen to the people who pay them (and who may even be willing to pay them more) rather than right wing groups funded by self interested billionaires and hostile politicians who seem to have forgotten whose interests they are supposed to serve.