Cornell Keynotes

The American South Braces for a Huge Unionization Push

Episode Summary

Will auto industry unionization in Tennessee and Alabama galvanize a new labor movement in the South? Andrew Wolf, a professor of global labor and work at Cornell’s ILR School, joins host Chris Wofford to explore the opportunities and challenges ahead for both manufacturing companies and labor organizers.

Episode Notes

Unionization is shaking up the auto industry, delivering meaningful gains toward fair pay and other benefits for workers in the U.S. The efforts are particularly significant in the South where a legacy of racist labor laws continues to propagate disparity within the workforce.

In this episode of the Cornell Keynotes podcast from eCornell, Andrew Wolf, a professor of global labor and work at Cornell’s ILR School, delivers insights on the recent union vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the implications for similar efforts led by auto workers – and employees in any industry – in the South and beyond.

Hosted by Keynotes senior producer Chris Wofford, this episode explores:

Learn more in Andrew Wolf’s April 2024 Vox interview covering the potential impact of Volkswagen’s unionization in Tennessee on auto workers across the nation.

Follow Wolf on X (formerly Twitter).

Enroll in eCornell’s labor relations certificate program, and check out other law and human resources online certificate programs to discover the latest best practices for labor-related legal issues in the workplace.

Episode Transcription

Chris Wofford: On today's show we are tracking huge developments in the labor movement in the southern United States. On April 19th, auto workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted in great numbers to join the United Auto Workers Union. Next week, auto manufacturing employees at the Mercedes Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama will hold a similar vote to join the UAW.


Chris Wofford: What's fascinating is that these unionization developments are happening in states that are famously and historically unfriendly to unions. So what is going on here? To get a handle on the developing story we're joined by professor Andrew Wolf from the Cornell university school of industrial and labor relations (ILR).


Chris Wofford: Andrew has been tracking these stories very closely, and I'm so excited to have them on the podcast this week. Be sure to check out the episode notes to learn about Cornell University's Labor Relations Certificate Program, at eCornell. Listeners, here's my conversation with Andrew Wolf.


Chris Wofford: Andrew Wolf, you've been watching closely labor developments in auto plants down south recently. Tell me what happened on April 19th at the Volkswagen plant down in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


Andrew Wolf: So very recently the United Auto Workers had a massive victory at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and it was their third time attempting to organize them and they had quite a massive victory.


Chris Wofford: So there are 5,500 workers down at the plant, nearly 75%, 73% of them voted to unionize. Were you surprised? Was everyone surprised?


Andrew Wolf: I wasn't necessarily surprised that they won.


Andrew Wolf: I was extremely surprised by the margin of victory. That's an overwhelming victory in a fairly hostile political environment. A lot of the politicians were trying to get the workers not to vote. There were outside groups trying to get the workers not to vote for the union. So I was extremely surprised by the margin of victory.


Chris Wofford: So why is this happening among the workers at the plant now, versus the two previous attempts?


Andrew Wolf: Well, a lot has changed since the past events. So I think most importantly this victory is coming off the heels of the UAW's massive contract victory at the big three auto plants last fall where the union won massive historic gains, got rid of the two tier wage structure that had been imposed after the great recession in '08.


Andrew Wolf: And this victory was all over the press, was getting a lot of attention and made it really clear the contrast between what workers were getting in the South and what workers in the North were getting. Additionally this happened now, as opposed to the previous failed attempts with a far more energized and new leadership to the UAW, the dissident caucus within the union won the most recent elections.


Andrew Wolf: And it brought in a slate that was far more focused on fighting hard. And on organizing. So they've poured vastly more resources into organizing than the previous UAW administration had. And then finally, I would point to workers experiences during COVID. We have generally seen a massive increase in interest in unionization, in union votes, and unions winning.


Andrew Wolf: And a lot of this has to do with workers experienced during COVID. Workers like auto workers were told that they were essential workers during the pandemic, and then have not been sharing in the recovery. So they were told they were essential, but were not treated as such. And it's made a lot of workers angry and interested in collective organizing.


Chris Wofford: And conditions presumably have not measurably improved since COVID '22, '23 now into '24, correct?


Andrew Wolf: Yeah, exactly. Although anticipating this all the southern plants did give wage increases to the workers, given that they knew that the workers would be looking to what happened at Ford and the big three and gave, you know, these wage increases to try to stem off this organizing.


Chris Wofford: Many car companies. BMW, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan have opened plants in recent decades down south in the southern U. S., precisely because they're low union membership states. Tell us about the right to work laws and what they can mean for both union and non-union employees in this historical context.


Andrew Wolf: Sure. After the increase in globalization from the 1970s and deregulation, you saw a huge influx in foreign automakers.


Andrew Wolf: Not only importing cars to the US, but opening factories in the US and they almost universally opened factories in the south, where there's lower unionization rate. They did this deliberately to avoid the UAW. And one of the things that has contributed to the lower unionization rate in the South is right to work laws.


Andrew Wolf: So, right to work laws came out of the Taft Hartley Act, which were amendments to the National Labor Act that were passed in the '40s. As a kind of pushback a conservative pushback against the success the labor movement experienced after the National Labor Relations Act was passed. So right to work laws make it harder for unions to fund themselves.


Andrew Wolf: Essentially what happens in a state that has a right to work law is a worker at a unionized site can say they do not want to be a member and refuse to pay union dues. So by comparison in states, especially in the north, where there aren't these laws, such as New York, if a worker doesn't want to be a union member at their site, they don't have to be, but they do have to pay what's called fair share fees.


Andrew Wolf: And this is because even if a worker in a right to work state refuses to pay dues or the fair share fees the union still has a duty to represent them. So if you as a worker say you don't want to be a member, don't want to pay dues, but you get fired and want to grieve it, the union still has to spend the money to fight for your grievance, right?


Andrew Wolf: So it's the equivalent of you know, we don't let people not pay their taxes. Right? When folks in your towns say, well, I don't have school aged children, why should I pay taxes for the school? We don't allow this. Right? So it creates this huge free rider problem. And then some of these laws are carved in different ways in different places that also make it so every single year the union has to sign people up.


Andrew Wolf: And it just diverts a lot of resources to trying to maintain the membership and their funding to represent the workers.


Chris Wofford: You mentioned that there's a correlation between low unionization and high rates of poverty especially in the South, and much of this points, you say, to the legacy of Jim Crow laws in the South. Help me make the connection between these two.


Andrew Wolf: Union avoidance in Southern states was a key component of Jim Crow. Unions represent a big threat to Jim Crow, because they bring workers across races together, and challenged the economic order, and the economic order in the South was Jim Crow. So there was this huge push to avoid unions, so that you could continue, and continuing to pit white and black workers against each other.


Andrew Wolf: And so right to work laws were part of this, that came out of the push to maintain Jim Crow and this separation and stay union free. The South often calls this, you know, the Southern discount, right? So you don't have to pay high wages because the government apparatus you know, works to keep the unions out.


Andrew Wolf: And you saw this during the campaign. Governors in 10 Southern states wrote a joint letter opposing the unionization campaign. So this includes governors and states where the, There wasn't even a union vote. And so the legacy of Jim Crow is very prevalent here, and what's happening. And that explains why the political establishment is scared of this challenge to the economic and political order.


Chris Wofford: Can I ask you about the Southern discount? So if we think about the history of automakers in the South over the last couple of decades, was that effectively a winning strategy for them? Was it economically a boom?


Andrew Wolf: For some Southerners, yes. I mean, the Southern discount has continued to maintain lower pay, higher rates of poverty in the South, but, you know, it benefits certain you know, elites, for sure and at the same time, the southern discount helps keep wages down in the north as well, right?


Andrew Wolf: So it's essentially an internal version of outsourcing. Part of the reason the UAW is organizing the South is because it's putting downward pressure on their wages in Detroit. If the union wants to maintain their benefits in Detroit they kind of have to organize the South because there's always the threat that the companies could just leave and go down south.


Chris Wofford: Zooming out big picture, are there other states or pockets of states in the U.S. where unions are gaining footholds like they are in the South? And this could be auto manufacturing or otherwise.


Andrew Wolf: Yes, for sure. So we're in a moment of massive increase in labor organizing and labor activism and militancy within existing unions has seen, you know, by the writer's guild and actor strikes last year.


Andrew Wolf: You know, the biggest kind of union organizing victory campaigns we've seen have been kind of in service sectors. So, you know, Starbucks, REI, Trader Joe's, and kind of, you know, food service and retail is where we've seen a lot of this explosion. And that's been general across the country.


Andrew Wolf: I mean, I think that's been what's so interesting about, take the Starbucks organizing, for example. You know, it's not just the Starbuckses in the Northeast. You're talking every single state in the union where you're seeing workers filing for elections and winning their union.


Andrew Wolf: What's interesting about the UAW is they seem to have kind of cracked into the South, but, we're seeing this kind of increase in unionization across the country.


Chris Wofford: Today's April 30th. President Joe Biden will be the keynote speaker. At a union autoworkers political convention in D.C., presumably to build support for auto making swing stage such as Michigan, Wisconsin, et cetera. Union President Sean Fain is not quite ready to endorse the president. Probably doesn't happen until later this year, if it even will pre-election, but how meaningful do you think this is for the union autoworker?


Andrew Wolf: It's been a huge deal. President Biden was the first sitting U.S. president to, while president, go on a picket line. And it was the UAW picket line last fall in the big three. And even Trump, you know, had this kind of rally that vaguely seemed to indicate that he was trying to win this vote over as well, right?


Andrew Wolf: So this was a big moment. Michigan's obviously a very important state for the presidential election. And you know, having the political support is really important. Additionally, this upswing, in unionization has been supported by changes in policies from Biden's National Labor Relations Board, which is the government body that oversees union elections.


Andrew Wolf: They have really pushed back on employer stall tactics to ensure that there aren't unfair labor practices and intimidation of workers happening and that there can't be constant appeals that prevent the elections from ever happening. So in the past companies could appeal and appeal, and it would take two years to have an election.


Andrew Wolf: So the fact that the National Labor Relations Board under Biden quickly moved to enable the UAW to have an election. It has done the same thing with Starbucks and other industries across the country is a big part of what's, you know, undergirding and supporting this union moment.


Chris Wofford: And for clarity, the National Relations Labor Board actually administers the elections that take place to unionize or otherwise within the organization.


Andrew Wolf: Yes.


Chris Wofford: In May, just a couple weeks from now, there's a similar UAW vote set to take place at two Mercedes plants near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. How do we anticipate this vote going?


Chris Wofford: I know it's difficult to make predictions, but maybe you can describe the similarities or differences between Tennessee and Alabama in this case.


Andrew Wolf: Yeah, I think the vote is gonna be much harder. The union still might win. I will imagine the percentage will be lower. And the reason I'm saying that is the company has far more aggressively fought the union than Volkswagen, because of the union workers at Volkswagen in Germany the company was pretty close to neutral, right? And so that, employer opposition has a huge, impact on decreasing union turnout. Although similarly, I think in both states the political establishment the governors and whatnot were against the vote. On the flip side, historically, Alabama has the highest unionization rate in the South partly because of in Mobile, that was where the aircraft carriers were created.


Andrew Wolf: So there was a pocket unionization there. There was historic unionization in the logging and mining industries. So it actually has more of a labor history, and it's actually gone up in the last few years in Alabama. So, there's some reason that you wouldn't expect this there, but I do think just given the employers far more hostility it's going to be harder.


Chris Wofford: So we've got Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz both voting within two weeks to unionize. These are both German car companies who's manufacturing plants elsewhere in the world happen to be unionized the Southern U.S. may be the last holdout. So perhaps, maybe there's something embedded in the culture of these German companies that more easily allowed this to happen versus a GM or a Japanese firm. Do you know what I'm getting at here?


Andrew Wolf: I think it, it comes down to institutions and politics more than necessarily culture. The German labor laws are far more robust. There's more protections even if workers don't have a union, they have a representation through works councils.


Andrew Wolf: And so the difference you're seeing here is that the union workers at the Volkswagen were, in Germany, we're able to pressure the company to remain more neutral where you haven't seen the same success with Mercedes Benz, but at the same time German labor law applies to them universally. So for example, there's been this new law passed in Germany around supply chain responsibility where German companies are held responsible for the actions at their factories across the world.


Andrew Wolf: And what's interesting about this is this law was created to go after sweatshops and the garment industry, you know, and say South Asia and other countries where that production is going on, where German companies are, but the UAW just filed a complaint saying that they violated this law by being hostile to the union.


Andrew Wolf: So it's very interesting. We'll see how this plays out. And so, they're both under the German context, which will make this easier, whereas there's not similar laws, the unions aren't as strong at the Japanese automakers. The UAW is not going to be able to like rely on the union to help pressure the companies as much with the Japanese manufacturers in the U.S.


Chris Wofford: So these developments are kind of expected to have pretty seismic effects on the industry going forward, especially as US car makers and manufacturers are also all in on electric vehicles, which should change the labor force and the way we do business there. What does this mean for workers?


Andrew Wolf: Part of the reason the UAW has, and President Sean Fain has gone so aggressive in this moment is this realization that the industry is at an inflection point.


Andrew Wolf: In many ways, the strike last fall at the Big Three was a strike about the future of the industry. One of the big things they won was company kind of neutrality in organizing their new electric vehicle parts, their battery suppliers, and whatnot. And there's this realization that the industry is changing, and the union knows that they need to push to make sure they have a voice in that transformation.


Chris Wofford: Andrew Wolf, thank you for keeping us up to date and also providing a crucial and critical historical context to this conversation.


Chris Wofford: Thanks for coming in today.


Andrew Wolf: Great. Thank you so much.


Chris Wofford: Thanks for listening to Cornell Keynotes. Check out the episode notes for information on Cornell University's Labor Relations Certificate Program, at eCornell. Thanks again, friends, and be sure to subscribe to stay in touch.