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Analysis: Attempts to Unionize Tennessee Auto Plants


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  Attempts by the United Auto Workers to unionize Tennessee auto plants in Smyrna and Chattanooga have been much in the news in recent weeks.

The UAW claims the majority of workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga favor unionization based on a postcard poll it conducted there earlier this year.

The response by the state’s Republican leadership has been loud and angry. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker commented that it was “incomprehensible” that VW leadership and workers would consider allowing the UAW into the plant.

To get beyond the rhetoric, WMOT News spoke Wednesday morning with Vanderbilt Sociologist Dan Cornfield about the UAW’s efforts. Dr. Cornfield specializes in the study of labor relations.

Professor Cornfield says that for the past six decades Tennessee has been using the absence of strong unions in the state as a primary selling point to attract new business and political leaders are worried about losing that advantage.

“Whether or not that has worked, it’s certainly…a successful union organizing drive would, at a minimum, contradict a sixty year old approach to industrialization and economic development in the region.”

Southern workers have traditionally shown little interest in unionizing. In addition, Cornfield says plant owners have successfully used wage and benefit incentives to keep union organizers at bay.

But he says workers, like those at the Nissan plant in Smyrna and the VW plant in Chattanooga, are increasingly worried about job security, an issue that can’t be addressed with a pay raise or more vacation time.

“Especially due to two-tier types of hiring strategies by the non-union companies and the use of many part time and temporary workers who work alongside of the fulltime workers.”

Cornfield says that while unions have made few inroads in the South, the UAW is making progress now by adapting its tactics to fit each location.

At a Nissan plant in Mississippi, the union is appealing to the state’s strong civil rights history. At the VW plant in Chattanooga, the UAW is appealing to the automaker’s long history of cooperative labor relations at home in Germany.

“Elected worker representatives sit on councils that collaborate with high managers in strategic decision making in the factory.”

Dr. Cornfield says a successful UAW organizing effort in the region could have far reaching political implications, perhaps even resulting in a resurgence of Democratic Party fortunes in the American South.

Click the link below to  listen to WMOT's full conversation with Dr. Cornfield?