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Southern Autoworkers Call B.S. on Republican Anti-Union Agitprop

That Volkswagen vote in Tennessee was step one. Step two may come next month in Alabama. Yet Southern GOP governors stand pat.

People celebrate at United Auto Workers vote watch party
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
People celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The UAW’s successful unionization effort last week at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee—the first successful unionization effort at a car factory in the South since the 1940s—is breaking the brains of Republicans in that region. They’re truly astonished that workers might not trust their corporate overlords with their working conditions, pay, health, and retirement.

Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee—along with Governors Kay Ivey (AL), Brian Kemp (GA), Tate Reeves (MS), Henry McMaster (SC), and Greg Abbott (TX)—issued a joint statement last Tuesday condemning the vote, declaring themselves “highly concerned about the unionization campaign driven by misinformation and scare tactics” of the UAW. The statement continued: “We have serious reservations that the UAW leadership can represent our values. They proudly call themselves democratic socialists and seem more focused on helping President Biden get reelected than on the autoworker jobs being cut at plants they already represent.”

Southern autoworkers, though, aren’t listening to the GOP’s B.S. anymore. A unionization vote is set for the week of May 13 at a Mercedes plant in Alabama, and more than half the workers there have already signed a card indicating their desire for union representation.

The problem for Republicans is that unions represent a form of democracy in the workplace, and the GOP hates democracy as a matter of principle. It’s why conservatives have opposed every effort to expand voting rights, from the Jim Crow era through fighting woman’s suffrage to opposing voting rights legislation from 1965 to this day.

Corporations, on the other hand, are not democracies: They’re organized along the lines of feudal-era kingdoms, with a big boss (CEO), a small society of lords and ladies (senior executives and the board of directors), and a large number of serfs whose continued employment is up to the whims of the boss and the lords and ladies.

In kingdoms and the form of government Republicans try to impose on Americans (particularly in red states), power flows from the top down; in democracies and unions, however, power flows from the bottom up, with leaders, to quote the Declaration of Independence, exclusively “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

An interesting irony about the successful unionization of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant is that that factory was the only Volkswagen operation in the world that wasn’t already unionized.

Representatives of the German-based corporation and its German union both traveled to Chattanooga to support workers voting for the union. In Germany, federal law requires every corporation with over 2,000 workers to have 50 percent of their board of directors drawn from their company’s unionized rank-and-file workers.

You could argue that we wouldn’t even have democracy if it weren’t for unions; that we never would have had the Renaissance and the subsequent Enlightenment without them.

When the bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, it killed so many workers, thus tightening the labor market, that the few who survived were able to demand higher wages.

Those who were skilled workers, from the construction trades to the arts to the professions, formed the first genuinely powerful guilds to negotiate on their behalf with employers and to enforce the contracts they’d worked out. This was also the beginning of the Freemasons, the “secret society” in which George Washington proudly claimed membership, that exists to this day and was the precursor to our modern unions.

The guilds and subsequent unions, through the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment, largely created the movements for universal suffrage and public education that led to the formation of the first middle classes and ultimately to our modern systems of democracy.

Modern American corporations have never been more profitable than today, and their CEOs have never taken more out of our economy than in the past few decades, partly because of technology that improves productivity and partly because our pathetic percentage of unionization means CEOs, shareholders, and senior executives are free to pillage their companies while ignoring the very workers whose efforts made them rich.

According to Goldman Sachs, American corporations will spend over a trillion dollars this year on stock buybacks alone, all money that could instead have better compensated workers and thus strengthened our working class. Historically, as union density goes up, inequality goes down, and vice versa. In the years since Reagan and the GOP declared war on unions in 1981, the wealth of the morbidly rich has exploded while worker salaries have largely stagnated.

Union members overall earn a bit over 10 percent more than their nonunion peers. For Black workers the numbers are even more stark: Black union workers earn 13.1 percent more than nonunion workers, and for Hispanic workers, it’s 18.1 percent more. Women workers without a union earn only 78 percent as much as men; unionized women workers take home fully 94 percent of what men earn.

The “Great Compression” is what economists call the era from FDR’s presidency through the beginning of the Reagan Revolution: It was the only time in the history of America when inequality actually declined, and workers’ pay increased at a faster rate than did their employers’. High rates of unionization and a top marginal tax rate of 74 to 91 percent drove the process, but, since Reagan destroyed both, inequality has exploded.

That inequality causes the U.S. economy to stagnate, as the morbidly rich save or invest their money in financial instruments rather than spending it or building new factories and businesses. We saw this play out in low GDP growth rates during the period from Reagan’s presidency through 2021, when Joe Biden brought us back to 1960s-level economic growth by rejecting neoliberalism and embracing unions and Keynesian stimulus.

When worker wage increases are held low, average people have less disposable income and that slows the economy (something called “secular stagnation”); when their pay is enhanced by union representation, the economy surges (as we’re seeing right now).

The benefits of unionization aren’t limited to the unionized workers themselves. Nonunion companies, particularly smaller employers, find themselves having to compete for workers in a unionized high-wage environment that helps all workers.

Researchers found that for every 1 percent increase in unionized workers’ wages, there’s a corresponding 0.3 percent increase in the wages of nonunion workers because the unionized workplaces have established the local wage floor. This makes entire communities more prosperous.

Republicans appear committed to politically dying on a number of hills that time has passed by. Their commitment to gutting voting rolls and restricting voting rights, their obsession with women’s reproductive abilities, and their hatred of regulations and democracy in the workplace are increasingly seen by average American voters as out-of-touch and out-of-date. Elitist. Arrogant.

So they write increasingly frustrated rage-rants about “democratic socialists” and the evils of “union bosses” while the people in their states are choosing unions, reproductive freedom, and a clean environment.

Will they ever wake up and change their policies to ones supported by the majority of Americans?

As long as six corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court continue to keep bribery legal and morbidly rich CEOs continue to hate unions almost as much as they dislike their own workers, I’m not holding my breath … and you shouldn’t, either.