State of the unions | News From The States

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In a death-defying feat of commentary acrobatics, I am here to propose an analogy that connects a car factory with Taylor Swift.

The overwhelming vote earlier this month by workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant to join the United Automobile Workers union was a first for a nonunion automobile facility in a Southern state. It came after two failed attempts over the last decade to organize that VW plant (the most recent a narrow loss in 2019), as well as several other unsuccessful organizing bids at car factories in several Southern and Midwestern states.

The decisive VW outcome — over 70% in favor, with over 80% turnout — elicited a triumphant union reaction: a “historic moment in our nation’s and our union’s history,” gushed UAW president Shawn Fain. The lopsided vote does qualify as a significant moment in U.S. labor history given the challenges of organizing in a country where union membership has been steadily declining for decades and trails most other advanced economies. But a historic moment in the nation’s history? That’s more than a little over the top.

CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE – APRIL 19: United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain, right, speaks as local organizers raise their fists at a UAW vote watch party on April 19, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With over 51% of workers voting yes the UAW won the right to form a union at the plant. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Skeptics of organized labor did their own predictable dance of doom: “Good luck to the workers who made the choice. They will need it if UAW history is a guide,” sourpussed the editors of the Wall Street Journal. “The evidence is still lacking” for the proposition that “a win for the UAW is a win for workers,” sneered the National Review’s Dominic Pino.

Everything is politicized these days (Taylor Swift included—we’ll come to that), so it’s old hat to notice Democrats cheering on unions while Republicans are shouting them down. Color me naïve, but I’ve long found it perplexing that organized labor is so enveloped in political polarization. After all, there really is no ideology inherent in workplace organizing, which at its core reflects a simple and universal concept: humans with common concerns come together to share them with each other, and band together to leverage change in their circumstances.

It’s a concept so universal (as I periodically have to remind my union-queasy business school students) that it is enshrined as a fundamental human right in Article 23 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

Unfortunately, labor organizing as a fundamental right eludes too many Republicans who over time have swallowed conservative hostility to unionism as gospel. That’s how we ended up with the insultingly vapid statement of opposition put out by Gov. Bill Lee and five of his fellow Southern GOP governors in advance of the VW union vote.

The statement frames unions as sinister outsiders: “special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values we live by.” One gathers the “values” he references here are low pay, weak job security, and lousy health insurance. “They proudly call themselves democratic socialists,” the statement said, because 1950s-era redbaiting never goes out of style. “A successful unionization drive will stop this growth in its tracks, to the detriment of American workers,” just as it has nowhere else that Lee and his gubernatorial compatriots can name.

Not one to let a passel of halfwit governors out-chucklehead a senator, Tennessee’s Bill Hagerty weighed in with a caution that VW workers should “take a very, very careful look at this and what it means for their liberty and freedoms at the end of the day.” Hagerty must have been absent the day they covered freedoms to organize and collective bargain in capitalism school.

Cleaning up on aisle two humiliated after VW workers resoundingly spurned his sage counsel, Lee said “I would not make that decision if I was a worker there. It’s unwise to put your future in somebody else’s hands.” Again, missing the point of collective bargaining entirely: workers who band together under the ambit of a union are quite affirmatively taking matters into their own hands. That’s the entire point.

Color me naïve, but I’ve long found it perplexing that organized labor is so enveloped in political polarization.  Workplace organizing  reflects a simple and universal concept: humans with common concerns come together to share them with each other, and band together to leverage change in their circumstances.

The VW-Chattanooga outcome is a big win, but for those inclined to celebrate it as an optimistic signal about labor organizing’s future, there’s a challenging paradox standing in the way. On the one hand, American attitudes about unions are definitely on the upswing. Gallup polling shows Americans’ approval of labor unions at its highest level in over half a century, and a recent Pew survey found almost six in ten see union decline as bad for working people. Other data shows large majorities grasping the positive impact of unions on pay fairness, workplace safety, access to healthcare, and retirement security.

But on the other hand, despite these positive attitudes and notwithstanding high-profile wins like the one at VW and successful organizing drives at hundreds of Starbucks stores, the long run decline in union participation continues. That same Gallup poll shows most Americans believe that unions harm the economy in general and have no interest in joining one themselves.

So to summarize the state of play in a nutshell: people generally like the idea of unions, get what they do for the workers involved, but aren’t persuaded that they benefit the larger economy, and don’t really want to be part of one themselves. Where all of this should leave us is in an agnostic position of tolerance and indifference. Unions are a good workplace option for many, they typically benefit those who choose to participate, and workers have a basic human right to consider forming or joining one.

That’s where Taylor Swift comes in. As with organized labor, Swift is pointlessly politicized. An NBC News poll late last year showed Swift with ratings of positive approval among Democrats that almost double Republicans (who are five times more likely to view her negatively). In a Monmouth poll this year, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to identify themselves as Swift fans, and by a wide margin are more inclined to approve of Swift encouraging fans to vote.

Mercedes-Benz workers will vote on union in May

But as with organized labor, most Americans aren’t really all that invested. Both of those polls find close to half of the country has no opinion one way or the other about Swift, and the Monmouth survey has her adult fan base at scarcely more than a quarter of the population. As with unions, people generally like the idea of Swift as an artist, get what she does for her fans, but don’t really want to be part of the flock. The right move for most of us then, as with organized labor, is an agnostic position of tolerance and indifference.

The UAW hopes to build momentum with an upcoming union vote in mid-May at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama. The glidepath there may be more turbulent: where VW management stayed largely neutral in the Chattanooga vote, Mercedes is said to be assuming a more aggressively resistant management posture. In light of how it went at VW, southern governors and other GOP politicians would do well to read the room and back off this time.

One Republican who did get it right with VW is Tennessee Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, whose district includes the newly unionized plant. “I’ve stayed out of it this time,” Fleischmann told HuffPost ahead of the vote, adding that “this is something that I’m going to let the workers decide.” Exactly as it should be.

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