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Who’s the Laughingstock?

Tennessee's right-to-work laws are backfiring with Volkswagen.

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The argument for "right-to-work" laws, like the one that exists in Tennessee and most other Southern states, is that they function as incentives to attract industry.

The mechanics work this way: In right-to-work states, no worker at a plant where unions are recognized is obliged to join a union. Advocates of right-to-work laws maintain such laws are guarantees of free choice. Opponents of them say they are union-busting measures and allow non-union workers to "freeload" on the employee advantages obtained through union auspices.

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A situation now arising involving the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, however, is scrambling all the clichés and talking points and confounding the assumptions of leading Tennessee Republican officeholders that union prerogatives have "job-killing" consequences and impair the state's efforts to attract industry.

In the case of Volkswagen, the management of the corporate giant has been insisting — in the face of opposition from Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker — that the arguments of right-to-work enthusiasts and union-bashers run counter to reality and that strong worker organizations actually constitute a competitive advantage for the corporation. The practice in economically powerful Germany is for corporations to be governed jointly by representatives of management and labor — the latter through union-like groups called "works councils."

In an interview with Nashville-based Associated Press reporter Erik Schelzig, who is German-born and speaks the language fluently, Bernd Osterloh, head of Volkswagen's works councils and a member of VW's supervisory board, said categorically: "Volkswagen considers its corporate culture of works councils a competitive advantage." Osterloh added, "Volkswagen is led by its board and not by politicians," and expressed confidence that the board would make "the right decision" in the face of demands by Haslam and Corker that the VW board should void its decision to honor a petition for representation by the United Auto Workers at the Chattanooga plant. The two officials say that, at the very least, Volkswagen should insist on a "secret ballot" vote on union representation by workers at the plant.

Haslam and Corker acknowledge having "concern about the impact of UAW on the state's ability to recruit other companies to Tennessee," as a spokesperson for Haslam put it. Corker went so far as to say Volkswagen would be a "laughingstock" if the company permitted a union to operate there. The baffled VW official said, "The decision about [buying] a vehicle will always be made along economic and employment policy lines. It has absolutely nothing to do with ... whether there is a union there or not." He further noted that U.S. law mandates union representation as a prerequisite for allowing the power-sharing function of works councils and pointed out that every other VW plant in the world maintains such councils as a key to its manufacturing strategy.

Though he might have, Osterloh did not go on to note the long-standing fact of existing UAW representation at the General Motors plant at Spring Hill or that Tennessee's ability to attract industry had somehow not been destroyed by the fact. Nor, and this is surely the clincher, did it keep Volkswagen itself from locating here.

We have to wonder: Just who is the real laughingstock in this argument?

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