Roy Exum: I Lived A Union Strike

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Following my urgent plea that the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant workers turn away an invasion of the United Auto Workers over the weekend, I had four requests for a correction which I am happy to clarify: the current union dues for a worker are equivalent to two hours pay “per month,” not “per week” as I erroneously stated. I also must have had two dozen emails that confirmed the UAW is the worst menace imaginable for the good of our community and I believe that to also be true.

The employees of our Volkswagen plant will begin a three-day voting period tomorrow that will decide if they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers. Throughout Chattanooga there are those who still wear deep and bitter scars from the past of union strikes and skirmishes – I am one – and my loathing for what the former International Typographical Union did to my family will never be forgotten.

At one time we owned the former Chattanooga News-Free Press and did everything we could do to avoid a strike. We promised every union employee a job for life, with raises of 3 percent every year until retirement, but they still struck, immediately signing a double-cross deal with our competitor, and then did everything in their power to ruin us over a 5½-year period where most of my one-time friends lost nearly everything they had. It was utterly horrible to watch.

My grandfather said at the time, “They wouldn’t do this for their God or their country” but they were so brainwashed – or whatever it was – by the union that we replaced over 200 sets of tires (they would scatter tacks in our parking lots every night), over 125 windshields (they would shoot them out from nearby buildings) and painted at least 50 cars (they would spray them with acid as the cars crossed the picket line.)

When tractor-trailer trucks would deliver rolls of newsprint, the union drivers would park outside our premises and then my brothers or I would drive the trucks across the picket lines, snaking the trailers backwards to our docks. When my older brother would drive a gasoline tanker back and forth to fill our delivery fleet, they would follow beside the entire route, tossing lit matches with glee as he watched in his rear mirrors.

When our press foreman got too many death threats, another brother rode home with him and stayed every night, vowing “they may come but it will be through me.” Ironically, the worst wasn’t from our former employees, many who taught me the art of page make-up, but from their new “friends” – contract thugs from out of town. One night they broke every window out of my grandfather’s car – and he drove it home in 20-degree weather -- in a way that evermore “steeled his resolve.”

I was in my mid-20s at the time and, since I had started hanging around at the newspaper at the age of 12, these men were my dear friends. I went to school with their kids, we ate lunch together. There was an old proof reader who quite literally gave me writing lessons, telling me a story must “flow” from one paragraph to the next and, if I had a good story, to let it tell itself. “A Cadillac doesn’t have to squeal its tires, son,” he delightfully explained.

On the first day of the strike against us, the union had no way of knowing we were already well versed in how to respond. We’d set up a secret lab with a cold-type operation and every member of my family – aunts, uncles, cousins – knew how to punch tape and paste-up copy. So the quite raucous crowd grew very quiet late that first morning when we printed a 36-page edition and delivered it to both them and our readers. Later several repentant strikers admitted to me, “When we saw that day’s edition, all of us knew we were dead.”

No matter; they stayed on the sidewalk for 5½ years, right up until the time the Typographical Union died itself. Every day they would hurl profanities, insults, and worse at my mother, my wife and others who crossed that picket line. We were carefully instructed not to respond in any way. Employees’ cars were the easiest target and our repair costs were staggering, yet not one arrest was ever made with the police union being what it was back then and the police commissioner at the time an outright embarrassment.

As the weeks dragged into months, our once-happy former employees grew bitter. They would have taken our deal but the “international” demanded more, don’t you see? They wanted that 3 percent annual raise and benefits we offered but the “international” had to have a better bargain to show in Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere. So out of loyalty to the union instead of to each other, the strike in Chattanooga ruined local people on behalf of some faceless brotherhood that paid a fraction in lost wages from the strike fund. No one wins in a strike but some lose much more than others, believe me.

What is it about reality our Volkswagen employees can’t grasp? VW management promises that a worker’s council is wonderful in Germany but can’t seem to understand this is a different country with different feelings and deep scars. No wonder the Fiscal Times just named Passat as one of the worst cars at the Detroit car show. VW doesn’t understand America, especially the union presence or how mere association will sully its brand. Look around, what are you seeing!

Unions and violence go hand-in-hand in the United States. At VW’s Pennsylvania plant back in the 80s, management marveled that the UAW would dare stage a wildcat strike after just six months. Are you kidding me? There is a 2 million square foot factory that continues to rust away there today. What is it about VW that refuses to learn or, why are the stubborn Germans so intent on reinventing the wheel?

A workers council? Hire the good ones as part of management and send the dregs back home. If VW has such a great global presence, which it most certainly does, why let riffraff onto your workers council who loudly proclaim to everybody in Detroit, “The United States is a disaster!”

My goodness, VW’s flirty role with UAW is the talk of the auto industry, I am telling you, and if the employees who will vote in the next three days will think first about their children and other generations to come, they will realize they hold a big chunk of our city’s future – and VW’s success -- in their very hands.

Toyota, you will recall, was going to build at Enterprise South and this week’s impending scenario is the exact reason they picked Mississippi instead. But if the VW employees will do what is good for Chattanooga instead of the cash-strapped UAW, they’ll make a statement that will be heard around the world. Please do what is best for us, not the faceless “them” that will assure our VW employees’ lives will never be the same again. That’s not what anyone in Chattanooga wants.

Just vote “no.”

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