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Auto workers just scored a huge victory?—?and Republicans are furious

Why Republican governors feel so threatened by UAW’s historic win in Tennessee.

Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted to join the United Auto Workers on Friday. The vote was a shocking and historic win that’s bound to further strengthen a rejuvenated organized labor movement. At the same time, it's sending political shockwaves throughout the South and putting Republicans on their back foot. Friday’s vote suggests that workers in Southern red states could be growing more interested in unionizing their workplaces — despite GOP efforts to paint unions as part of a socialist agenda pushed by President Joe Biden.?

The UAW is on a hot streak. Last year, UAW autoworkers at General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler parent, Stellantis, used strikes to secure contracts with big pay raises and better work conditions. Chattanooga represents a different kind of win — unions making inroads into hostile territory. According to Reuters, the newly formed union in Volkswagen marks the “the first auto plant in the South to unionize via election since the 1940s and the first foreign-owned auto plant in the South to do so.”

The UAW lost unionization votes at the same plant in Chattanooga in 2014 and 2019, but this time it finally prevailed.

The South is a rough place for unions. The unionization rate is around 8 percentage points lower there than it is outside the region. “The history of Southern political economy is to a great extent a history of the unbreakable addiction of Southern political and economic elites to no-wage and low-wage labor,” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie recently explained in a piece contextualizing the stakes of the Chattanooga vote. And the total dominance of Republicans in the South means that the party’s allegiance to representing big business — whose interests are at odds with the interests of the workers they exploit — go largely unchallenged in the region. Part of the way that manifests today is through so-called “right-to-work” laws, which make it harder for workers to form and sustain unions, in part by allowing nonunion workers to access union benefits without paying dues. This policy is the law of the land across the entire South, including Tennessee.

The UAW lost unionization votes at the same plant in Chattanooga in 2014 and 2019, but this time it finally prevailed. That might be due, in part, to the wins the UAW?secured for workers from the major automakers in Michigan last year. Seeing real gains among workers in the same sector elsewhere can be inspirational, and act as a counterweight to negative messaging from an employer about unionizing.

Alarmed by the unionization drive, Republicans tried to discourage the Chattanooga voters from supporting it. The governors of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee released a fearmongering statement three days before the Chattanooga vote about unions representing “special interests” that “threaten our jobs and the values we live by.” Among other things, the governors argued that unions are interlopers that intrude on the “direct” relationship between employers and employees and that unions act as death knells for their workplaces. They also tried to stigmatize UAW by describing the organization as a socialist enterprise and a partisan tool of Joe Biden.

While the wage gains won by a union could theoretically spur some layoffs in some cases by raising the cost of labor for a company, the claim that unionization causes the financial collapse of most companies is utter nonsense. There are countless unionized private sector jobs around the world in profitable companies. And contrary to the Republican talking point, unions don’t intrude on the employer-employee relationship, but allow employees to meaningfully express themselves through their collective power — which results in them getting higher wages and better working conditions than they would without a union.?

The Republican governors’ panicked statement is a reminder of the faux populism of the GOP.

Fortunately, President Joe Biden not only expressed solidarity with the Chattanooga workers, but he also hit the Republican governors for peddling falsehoods about unions. “Let me be clear to the Republican governors that tried to undermine this vote: there is nothing to fear from American workers using their voice and their legal right to form a union if they so choose,” he said in a statement after the vote. “In fact, the growing strength of unions over the last year has gone hand-in-hand with record small business and jobs growth alongside the longest stretch of low unemployment in more than 50 years.”??

Republicans should be scared. A Mercedes plant in Alabama will hold a UAW election in May, and most workers have signed cards signaling their support for unionizing. Success could continue to beget success, with autoworkers across the South forming unions and breaking the total control of capital in their workplaces. Worse still from the perspective of the GOP, the unionization contagion could spread to other sectors.?None of this will be pleasing to a party that views corporate domination of workers as an essential condition of American economic life.

The Republican governors’ panicked statement is a reminder of the faux populism of the GOP. That they so strongly object to the idea of workers being able to express their need for dignity in the workplace tells you everything you need about how they really feel about the blue-collar worker.

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