How can organized labor make inroads in the politically hostile environment of the U.S. South?

Whether we’re talking about UAW Local 737 at that glass plant or other UAW local unions at other represented automotive parts suppliers throughout the state and around the region, we are part of the fabric of the Southern economy and workforce.

Not long ago, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford told CNBC that he credits the UAW with helping the entire automotive industry get back on its feet after the recession. For a good example of this, we can look 40 miles down the road from Nashville to Spring Hill, Tennessee, where the members of UAW Local 1853 have been building quality cars for nearly three decades at a General Motors assembly plant.

During the recession, GM temporarily shuttered the Spring Hill facility. But today, that plant is open thanks to the local union’s efforts through collective bargaining on wages, hours, insurance and other issues. Now, General Motors is adding new products and new jobs. And the local union members are playing a key role in GM’s comeback story.

Do the successes of our local unions in Spring Hill and elsewhere mean the UAW is happy with the environment in Tennessee and the region? Of course not. We haven’t made as much progress down South as we would have liked.

The reason why is obvious: Every state in the region, except Kentucky, has so-called “right-to-work” laws on the books that are designed to undermine hard-working men and women. These policies complicate employees’ efforts to organize.

But our UAW local unions are not going to let anti-labor laws block our forward momentum. In places where these policies exist, we are dealing with them. And we are succeeding, despite the laws.

As evidence, look no farther than Volkswagen in Chattanooga, about 150 miles southeast of Spring Hill.

After more than two years of outside interference, the skilled-trades employees at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga assembly plant in December voted overwhelmingly to designate UAW Local 42 as their representative for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Unfortunately, Volkswagen is dragging its heels by contesting this fair election. But our hope is that the National Labor Relations Board soon will rule in favor of the employees and compel the company to come to the bargaining table. When that happens, the workers in Chattanooga will have achieved a major victory — despite Tennessee’s right-to-work law.

At the end of the day, the optimal conditions for organizing clearly are in states that aren’t encumbered by hostile labor laws. But in places where these laws exist, in the South and elsewhere, workers will overcome them.

Gary Casteel is secretary-treasurer of the UAW.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber, and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.

Read or Share this story: