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Frank Hammer discusses the labor conditions at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee that moved workers to attempt unionization, and says that the political interference by state officials in these efforts shows weakness of labor laws

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

United Auto Workers withdrew its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board just an hour before a hearing was due to take place concerning the outcome of a vote to unionize Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The UAW said that the appeal process would be too lengthy and instead they will call for a congressional inquiry.

Volkswagen workers rejected representation by the United Auto Workers by a close vote of 712 to 626 in February. The UAW says political interference from officials like Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker led to unfair election results.

Here to discuss this is Frank Hammer. Frank Hammer is a retired General Motors employee and former president and chairman of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He know organizes with the Autoworker Caravan, an association of active and retired autoworkers who advocate for workers’ demands in Washington.

Thanks for joining us, Frank.


WORONCZUK: So, before we get into the details of what just happened, let’s get some context. Why did workers at the plant and at UAW pursue unionization? What kind of working conditions did they face there?

HAMMER: Well, with what’s interesting about this particular organizing drive is that those kind–the aspects or the reasons why workers wanted to unionize was never really made clear, partly perhaps because of the neutrality agreement that the UAW signed off on with VW.

But what’s really emerging–and I’ve talked to several of the workers down at the Chattanooga facility–is that the VW is operating with a Toyota manufacturing system in place at the VW Chattanooga plant, and anybody that’s familiar with the Toyota manufacturing system knows that it involves quite some anti-worker and certainly anti-union measures that are built in to the structure of that manufacturing system.

The results are that, as one worker quoted, practically every worker that worked at VW was injured in some kind of way or was hurting. And there are workers who’ve suffered injuries on the job, with tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, a whole host of, you know, muscular and nerve injuries that I think were pretty endemic in the plant and is one of the motivations that workers had for defying all the right-wing propaganda and struggling to establish unionization at the VW plant.

I also heard that they rotated shifts weekly or biweekly. And that meant that workers one week would be working days, the the next week they would be working nights, the following week they would be working days, and they had absolutely no say over this kind of structure of the work routine, which meant that workers were never able to recoup their sleep, were never able to establish some kind of a rhythm, attend to their family lives. I think this is another one of the factors.

Another factor that came out very strongly was the kind of favoritism and the political jockeying that workers had to do to, for example, get a promotion to a different job or maybe to go to different team.

These are the things that are endemic in plants that operate with the Toyota manufacturing system. And VW, despite its protestations that it was union-neutral, installed a system that was fairly hostile to workers and certainly hostile to a union.

WORONCZUK: So at the hearing, there was supposed to be–the UAW had subpoenaed Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and U.S. Senator Bob Corker. Why did they subpoenae them? What do they hope to demonstrate?

HAMMER: Well, I think that these reactionary politicians went beyond mere advocacy of their anti-union propaganda and seemed to have gone a couple of steps further in actually attempting to blackmail the corporation, attempting to blackmail Volkswagen, for even contemplating having union representation in the plant. And the blackmail was in the form of if you don’t do what we want you to do, i.e. no union, then we will reconsider whether we will give you $300 million worth of subsidies. And on the other hand you had Corker, who is no friend of the UAW, and no friend of unions, for that matter, who was saying that VW assured him that there’d to be work there, but only on the condition that there be no union. So I think when they went to these lengths to attack the unionizing drive, that the UAW had sufficient reason to say that this was not only free speech but actually interference and blackmail to prevent VW workers from organizing.

WORONCZUK: You know, it’s pretty amazing to see how openly they said that they wouldn’t show up at the hearing, that they would just basically reject their summons. Why do you think that they felt so comfortable to do so?

HAMMER: Well, I’ve had some experience with the NLRB but certainly not at the level of–you know, where you’re involved with organizing drives. But the law that is the foundation of the National Labor Relations Board is fairly weak. For example, if there is wrongdoing on the part of a corporation and the NLRB determines that, in violation of the NLRA, there are hardly any penalties. I mean, like, you know. So it is my sense that there are no penalties for these senators and state politicians refusing to testify. I don’t get the sense that there’s any ability that the NLRB has to compel them to testify.

So I think it speaks to the weakness of labor law in the U.S. and that labor law–the unions, and the UAW in particular, have been seeking labor law reform since 1978. And even though we’ve had Democratic administrations in power over that period of time between then and now, we’ve never been able to reform the law and make it stronger on behalf of labor. It’s really tilted in favor of the corporations.

WORONCZUK: So now that the appeal has been withdrawn, the governor of Tennessee has said that the plant can go ahead with expansion, and it seems like the $300 million incentive package that they had offered to VW will be given to them. So some might argue that this is good for workers and good for business. There’ll be more jobs, and there’ll be more profit for VW. What would you say in response?

HAMMER: Well, I think that VW workers want to see more work there. There’s no question about it. I think that my understanding is that when VW was first established–and this had a lot to do with Corker–that the state gave them something like a half billion dollars worth of subsidies–so this another $300 million on top of that–so that the UAW said, well, we should be wanting these $300 million worth of subsidies to be given unconditionally to get that work. And I think–at some point I think the workers, and certainly in the community, in Chattanooga and throughout Tennessee, would be asking, well, shouldn’t we make some stipulations in return for the subsidies?

But I definitely think that VW had been planning to put the work there. I’m sure that the workers want to see the work there. And I think that there probably should be some negotiation with VW to give some kind of community benefit agreements or something to the effect that would benefit the community in exchange for getting the subsidies.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Frank Hammer, thank you so much for joining us.

HAMMER: I thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.