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New path helps union to regain its footing

The United Auto Workers just announced that General Motors will move production of the next-generation Cadillac SRX crossover SUV from Mexico to its UAW assembly plant in Spring Hill Tennessee.

Yep – that is the same Tennessee where anti-union Republican officials threatened in February to pull economic development funds from Volkswagen if workers voted to join the UAW at their Chattanooga plant.

The UAW subsequently lost its recognition election by a narrow margin. Since then, under a seldom-used provision of U.S. labor law, these workers decided to form a “minority status” union at the Volkswagen facility.

For the time being, the new UAW Local 42 represents only those folks who have signed authorization cards – but they are getting closer to majority status every day.

This approach to organizing is an old one.

Prior to 1935, workers would form unions first, then fight for recognition with the company, usually involving costly strikes. Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act to provide for a peaceful election procedure. If a majority voted to form a union, companies would be legally required to negotiate with them.

For decades, the process worked well, union membership swelled – and with it, the standard of living for the middle class.

Since the 1980s, anti-union forces have spent billions to circumvent the process, threatening workers with job loss if they requested collective bargaining rights.

And with government allies eagerly using trade agreements to ship those jobs to poor countries overseas, their strategy has been working.

The UAW decision to form Local 42 first, and then work within the company and the community to better the lives of the people of Chattanooga, may hold the key to future organizing efforts across the south. Fortunately for them, Volkswagen has not been hostile to the UAW's efforts. In fact, they are mystified by the anti-worker forces in the USA, and are looking for ways to establish a European style “Workers Council” model in their Tennessee plant.

We should be mystified too. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, and Theodore Roosevelt, the great 20th century Republican President, were both outspoken defenders of labor.

They saw the union movement as an extension of American democracy. Their faces are chiseled into the stone of Mount Rushmore.

We can only hope that their contemporaries will soften their opposition to the people's right to collective bargaining.

Oh, by the way – Volkswagen is proceeding to expand its presence in Tennessee, despite the previous threats to withhold government support.

Randy Schmidt is vice chairman of the UAW Community Action Program of Adams, Allen and Wells counties. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.