Roy Exum: VW Needs Big Repairs

Tuesday, June 18, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The banner headline on Monday morning read, “Gov. Lee, top Republicans celebrate failed UAW bid to unionize Volkswagen,” and that’s the second-worst thing that the headline could have said. The worst, of course, is if the UAW had won, and the Detroit-based union that lost 35,000 members last year would be revived -- breaking a hole into the tight wall of foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the South. But since Friday night, shortly after it was announced that VW full-time employees once again turned the scurrilous UAW away in an 833-775 defeat, it is painfully obvious the election’s outcome had more to do with luck than hollow promises.

For the state’s Republicans to gloat over a crucial election that was determined by less than 100 votes, be it known that such low-class response to the union defeat could easily turn the tables in the UAW favor this time next year. That is the earliest time between elections allowed by law, but if there is to be another round coming, Chris Brooks, who writes for out of Detroit, believes the UAW needs to heighten its game.

“The UAW’s continued losses in the South are not a reflection on the workers who live there. Those losses are the result of highly sophisticated and intense anti-union campaigns by employers, business groups, and politicians. They are also the result of the unsophisticated, shallow organizing approach of the UAW,” he wrote

I’m on record as being strongly anti-union. The International Typographical Union picketed my family’s newspaper for five and a half years. Over 100 people who had been my friends for years went out. They soon turned rowdy, breaking windshields, tossing tacks to flatten tires, throwing metal balls at in-coming employees, and a whole lot worst. Trust me, I know about unions so I can tell you the best way to handle the rowdies is by being a better employer, handling the work force in a good and positive way, and trying hard to foresee and prevent problems.

According to various sources, Volkswagen is a terrible place to work and is in desperate need of reform. Germans are different than Americans and the slave-drivers who are actual descendants of the World War II runners-up are best reflected by this VW worker: “Pro-union workers in Chattanooga see the potential results of unionization very differently. They want to finally get a handle on the dangerous conditions in the plant.

“This union fight is about you and me and that guy over there who is getting written up by a jackass who forced him to work overtime on a line that is going too fast and put too much on him,” one worker said. “We are all in this together.”

Think about this: Volkswagen is eager to start a new assembly line for a promising SUV. The success, or failure, of this new emblem will be determined by the assembly plant workers. It doesn’t take a hollow MBA degree to learn a smile, compassion for the workers, and an esprit de corps are the cornerstones upon which success is built.

In the days leading up to the votes, it appeared VW hasn’t quite lived up to its recruitment patter and that is why last week’s election was so close. Only a day or two before last week’s election, came out with a story entitled: “On Eve of Union Vote, Chattanooga VW Workers Describe Rampant Workplace Injuries” and let me share some excerpts of that story the Volkswagen leadership should not ignore.

* * *

Chris Brooks of writes: “I’m only 33 and I can’t see myself working here for another 10 years,” said Ashley Murray. “I would be disabled by then. We need a union because they are a multi-billion-dollar company and they treat us like s**t.”

“Murray is a production employee at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of 18 hourly employees there I interviewed for this story. Comments like hers were almost universal … Many workers told variations of the same story. For the first time in their lives, they’re making good money  - but they’re trapped in a job that’s chewing them up.

“My co-workers are getting hurt, I’ve been hurt, there is constant threat of injury, and if it doesn’t change, none of us will survive,” said one worker who’s been at Volkswagen for eight years but asked to remain anonymous for fear of management retaliation.

“I shouldn’t have to give Volkswagen my body in exchange for the house that I live in and the lifestyle I try to provide for my family.”

* * *

“When I went and told my supervisor I had a problem with a hand, I was called a liar. I was told I was faking,” said Daniel Maddox, who has worked at the plant for eight years. “I was told I’m a nice-sized Black guy and I should be able to deal with the pain.” He ended up having surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

* * *


Volkswagen was wooed to Chattanooga in 2008 with a $554 million subsidy package from the state and local governments.

It was the largest taxpayer handout ever given to a foreign-owned automaker up to that moment, and remains the largest subsidy deal in Tennessee history. The deal came free of any job or investment requirements.

“The only commitment that was made to the state was to keep the plant non-union. It wasn’t to be safe or pay well or provide a great work environment,” said maintenance worker Gary Swafford. “It’s flabbergasting.”

The current starting wage for a production worker at the factory is $15.50 an hour and pay tops out at $23 an hour, or around $48,000 per year without overtime.

Volkswagen provides the lowest pay and benefits of any automaker in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the Center for Automotive Research.

But there are no other automakers in low-wage Chattanooga. Wages at the plant are better than you’ll find in most local jobs that don’t require a college degree.

* * *


What causes so many injuries? Workers I spoke with pointed to increasing line speeds, understaffing, and high turnover - all hallmarks of the company’s lean production model.

“They’ve cut the staffing down to bare minimums,” said production worker Drew Hall.

For instance, every line has team leads - highly experienced production workers who train new employees on the different “pitches.” A pitch is a segment of the assembly line in which a worker is responsible for performing a specific series of tasks in a set amount of time.

Team leads are not supposed to be assigned pitches of their own. That way they’re available to train new employees, step in for a worker who needs to use the bathroom, or help out if the line gets behind.

But staffing is so low that team leads are being permanently placed into pitches on the line, Hall said.

Adding to the pressure, the company is constantly speeding up the lines, or removing a worker and redistributing the work among those who remain.

“The people who determine how much time you have in each pitch will sit there with a stopwatch and time you, and then time your downtime,” said a worker who asked to remain anonymous.

“But they don’t take into account having to grab a drink of water or having to grab tools or new materials. They will time it out so you are literally running.”

* * *


Workers said they’re supposed to rotate to a new job on the line every couple hours. This is supposed to help alleviate repetitive motion injuries, but it isn’t happening.

“You get stuck in the same pitches,” the same worker said. “You work eight to 10 hours a day for three days in a row and they don’t move you. The jobs are too much.”

“Some lines are still on a one-job rotation all day or all night,” said a paint shop worker. “We’ve gone from lean to starving.”

“They push, push, push,” said another worker who also asked to remain anonymous. “They overload the pitches to make the job impossible, and when you are rushing to catch up, that is when you get injured.”

Why would the company do this? “They stress the pitches to weed out the weaker team members,” the same worker said. “That’s Volkswagen in a nutshell.”

* * *


Temporary employees of Aerotek, a staffing agency, make up between 30 and 40 percent of the workforce, by worker estimates. Among the temps, turnover is constant - their wages are lower, and many didn’t realize what a difficult job they were getting into.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I used to dig ditches and do electrical work,” said one worker on the door line.

“We joke that it’s like the movie ‘Platoon,’” said another. “It’s not worth being nice to new people, because they may not be around long enough to be worth getting to know. You might as well as be hard on them at first to show them what it’s like.”

“People come in and work a month or two,” said Kim Onofrey, who was an Aerotek worker for nine months before converting to a Volkswagen employee. “We could never keep people on the line I was on. We were constantly having to train someone who was new.”

Since new hires can’t work the more difficult pitches, the veteran employees get stuck in the hardest jobs every day.

“When new guys are hired, they put them on easy things to learn,” said Matt Sexton, a production worker who has been at Volkswagen for seven years. “Everyone else gets stuck doing these ridiculous pitches all day long and are just being grinded into the ground.”

“If you want to retire well, you have to do this for 20-30 years,” another worker said. “I don’t think anyone can do that.”

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