News & Commentary

December 6, 2015

The Wall Street Journal reports that the United Auto Workers union has secured a small victory by successfully voting to create a collective bargaining unit at Volkswagen AG’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee (its only U.S. plant).  Of the more than 160 electricians, welders, and other repair workers who voted, 71% percent agreed to form the bargaining unit.  The UAW will be able to negotiate wages, benefits, and work rules.  Despite a failed effort to unionize the entire plant (all 2,50 workers) in 2014, a regional director of the NLRB decided in November that the skilled tradesmen could form their own collective bargaining unit.  As of now, the company has not appealed the election to the NLRB.

In the meantime, the New York Times reports that the United Steelworkers union and its members are suffering the consequences of what has become “one of the nation’s largest and longest work stoppages in years.”  Allegheny Technologies has locked out 2,200 workers at 12 plants in six states since August 15, after their union refused to accept far-reaching concessions that the company demanded in the name of cometping with demoestic and Chinese competitors.  This comes after many of Allegheny’s employees worked strenuous schedules of overtime to help the company open a brand new, gigantic $1.2 billion steel rolling mill in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the promise that the mill would bring hundreds of well-paying jobs to the Allegheny River Valley.   The lockout has already deeply affected the blue-collar town, and the unionized workers who have been locked out continue to picket around the clock outside of the plant, which is currently operated by hundreds of temporary replacemen workers.  The company terminated health coverage on Nov. 30 and shows no signs of budging despite the impending holiday season, freezing weather, and termination of workers’ unemployment benefits.

In the midst of rising tension and labor unrest in China, the New York Times reports that police have arrested and detained at least three workers’ rights leaders in recent days.  The Wall Street Journal puts the number of people linked to labor-rights groups who were rounded up and interrogated at 19.  Zeng Feiyang, a labor organizer and lawyer who directs a workers’ center in Guangzhou, was criminally detained for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.”  Zhu Xiaomei, a labor organizer, and He Xiaobo, the leader of a group who helps injured workers, were both detained as well.

The unrest arises at a time when many factories in the region are moving elsewhere in pursuit of lower wages.  Witnessing these blows to the economy, workers are focusing their demands on the local government.  The number of strikes and protests in Guanhdong has increased substantially from July to November (23 to 56).  The government, worried by the activism, seems to be responding only by cracking down on those leading the movement.  One researcher views this as the authorities sending a clear warning signal to workers to steer clear of the labor organizations.  Appeals to the police calling for the activists’ release have so far been unsuccessful.

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