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Sometimes Anti-Unionism Is Just Anti-Unionism

February 18, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Come with me (figuratively) to Chattanooga, where the United Auto Workers wanted a plant to unionize, the car company wanted the plant to unionize, but the plant didn’t unionize because of conservative opposition, misinformation, and threats. It’s a story that simultaneously disappoints and infuriates. As unions and collective bargaining in many sectors continue to be attacked, it is a shame that a union forming for all the right reasons with the company’s support faced such fervent opposition. It’s also a reminder that many of the attacks on teachers’ unions come from the same place of knee-jerk anti-unionism.

In Chattanooga, the UAW was encouraging workers at a Volkswagen plant to unionize. Volkswagen was quietly supportive of the idea, largely because it wants to start a German-style works council at the plant. The rest of Volkswagen’s plants the world over are unionized, and the company credits workers’ input with helping it grow, adapt, and improve. Labor organizers’ priorities were similar, since pay, conditions, and the labor-management relationship in Chattanooga were already in good shape. It was the opportunity to have an increased voice at an employer that welcomed such input that drove their efforts.

Conservatives across the state and country, however, cracked down. The governor of Tennessee decried the idea, Grover Norquist’s Orwellian “Center for Worker Freedom” poured money in to raise the specter of Detroit, a state legislator threatened to withhold tax incentives from VW if the plant unionized, and a US senator appears to have misguided workers, telling them that voting down the union would cause VW to open a new SUV plant (thereby hinting that voting for the union would jeopardize those potential jobs). All this despite the fact that the company was on board with unionization and, according to Time, “there’s little evidence that the anti-union manufacturing model (exemplified by companies like Nissan) works better than the unionized one, particularly when it incorporates Germanic work councils.”

In the end, the smears and threats worked, and the union vote failed in a relatively narrow 712-626 split.

It’s another tough defeat for private sector labor, following an embattled few years for public sector labor. From conservative Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s demolition of collective bargaining rights to the rise of the (ineffective) close-and-charterize approach as a preferred model for education “reform” in cities like Chicago, public sector labor has been weathering a difficult time. Add in the push by groups like StudentsFirst for more vouchers to private schools and the picture grows grimmer.

And yet….

Consider the recent decision by the Twin Cities German Immersion School, a charter school, to unionize. According to the Pioneer Press, a teacher spokesperson put it this way: “Many of us felt we could do our jobs even better if we organized."

It’s that idea -- that unions can and do help workers do their jobs better -- that’s been lost in the recent attacks on unions. The notion that management benefits from the workers’ perspectives has been embraced by companies like Volkswagen, yet it is derided or rejected outright by conservatives whose primary objections to unions are clearly political. Even when it’s good for business, or education, or whatever, it’s still seen as a threat by the hard right. As Talking Points Memo put it, “when it comes to being pro-business or anti-union, they’ll choose anti-union.”

Workers’ views are important and deserve more consideration than they typically get. Ryan Vernosh, a unionized public school teacher in Saint Paul, was Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2011, and a recent guest blogger for Rick Hess at Education Week. In his post last Friday, Vernosh pointed out, “Policy without teacher input usually results in impractical mandates that stifle effective teaching.” He’s very right. The rest of his post offers a well-reasoned argument for why the teacher voice needs to be included much more prominently in education reform discussions. (I’d note that this runs counter to the approach recently taken by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce who held an “education summit” during the morning when students and teachers were excluded. To see one teacher’s excellent take on this decision, check out this piece in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.)

Whether it’s auto workers in Chattanooga or teachers in Minnesota, workers and unions deserve respect and a place at the table. Their voices are important to organizations that run well. Unions do have a responsibility to look after their members’ needs, both at work and in terms of professional development. Public sector unions also do better when they include their constituents -- like students and families for teachers’ unions -- in planning for the future and defining their roles. With these considerations in mind, let’s be ready to call out those who are blatantly anti-union for the sake of being anti-union.

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