Years ago, my wife and I had friends who adamantly (and proudly) refused to ever get married. While their argument sort of made sense, it seemed more a mixture of youthful defiance and libertarian exuberance than sheer rationality. I remember my friend's exact words: "We don't need a flimsy sheet of paper issued by the State of California to validate our love." (Yes, that's how he talked.)
There's a version of this argument currently being used by a segment of employees at a Volkswagen factory in Nashville, Tenn., one that is considering affiliating with the UAW (United Auto Workers), a move that would make it the first UAW plant in the Deep South. The UAW has been trying to set up shop in the ex-Confederacy for decades. Organizing this facility would be a major "victory."
The Volkswagen corporation, unlike its American counterparts, has no problem with the plant affiliating with the UAW or any other union for that matter. That's because Germany (and Europe as a whole) doesn't fear or resent organized labor the way the U.S. does. The notion of employees banding together in order to have a meaningful voice makes eminent sense to Europeans. Indeed, German industry is not only heavily unionized, it is hugely profitable.
But here's the rub. Propaganda from Republican politicians, hardcore anti-unionists and self-deluded "individualists" has entered the bloodstream of enough VW employees to make this thing very complicated. These impressionable employees have formed a group called the American Council of Employees, describing themselves, according to the AP wire, as "local, independent, and free of outside influence or political agenda."
As a former union president, I'm familiar with these "Let freedom ring!" employee involvement groups. Although I never had to fight one off for representation or "shared representation" of the membership, I did have to step in and squelch their formation. And let's be clear: This VW conflict isn't the fault of the workers. The only thing these good people want is to have a meaningful say in how they're being managed. Who can argue with that?
The fault lies with American management. Unlike the Germans, if you ask which group they would rather deal with -- a ragtag committee of well-meaning but inexperienced employees without the power to engage in collective bargaining or exert real "muscle," or a federally recognized union, with stewards, collective bargaining, arbitration and strike rights -- they will always choose the amateurs. In fact, they rejoice at the prospect of engaging in "straight talk" with a group of civilians, which is why they actively promote these committees.
Also, let's be clear about something else. This issue has nothing to do with "democracy." Employees not only vote for their UAW officers, there are regular membership meetings where members can alter union policy. Moreover, contracts have to be ratified by the membership before being implemented, and strikes have to be approved by the membership before being called (something the propagandists fail to mention).
If these Tennessee VW employees seek meaningful input, they'll vote to join the UAW. If they grow unhappy with their union leaders, they will elect a new executive board. In truth, if the plant feels the union has disappointed them, they can replace all the existing officers with people who banded together to form the American Council of Employees.
Let these ACE folks run for union election. Let them run the facility, but let them do it without being manipulated by management. Let them do it with the UAW behind them. If American management didn't think they could euchre these committees, they wouldn't try so hard to promote them. Indeed, let freedom ring.
David Macaray, a playwright and author (his newest book, Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories, will be published in June), is a former labor rep.