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Labor scholar says there are high hurdles to unionize at Rivian

Charging station at Rivian plant
Eric Stock
WGLT file

With the Rivian plant in Normal adding a second shift, the United Auto Workers has been quietly contacting workers about a possible union-organizing campaign.

The union has declined to say anything publicly. Rivian employs some 5,000 people at the plant, though not all are on the manufacturing side.

Illinois State University professor Victor Devinatz studies labor history. Devinatz said the union would certainly be interested in organizing the plant, though there are challenges involved.

“In manufacturing now, it's been very difficult to organize,” he said.

During the last four decades, union density among auto workers has fallen. That climate can make the chance to unionize lower if a union doesn't have a strong track record, or if the industry is largely non-union. Devinatz said the United Auto Workers now have 391,000 members, down by more than two thirds from the peak of 1.5 million in 1979.

“They've had a lot of trouble organizing other auto companies beginning in the 1980s, specifically, the southern transplants, they haven't been successful. For instance, Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. There was an election in 2014 and in 2019. Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn., right? Honda in the 1980s, and BMW. All of these companies they haven't been able to organize,” said Devinatz.

Devinatz said the union density in the auto sector is likely to fall even further as automakers open electric vehicle plants.

"With the southern transplants and the electric vehicle companies that are setting up plants, they're going to have some 166,000 auto workers and none of them are UAW members," he said.

Organized plants and non-organized plants do influence each other, though.

"This is called the threat effect. That means the non-union employers then will raise wages, improve benefits, and making working conditions better as a disincentive to organize," said Devinatz.

Conversely, low union density provides less of an incentive for companies to increase wages and improve working conditions, said Devinatz. That can actually increase the impetus to organize, though Devinatz said regional regulatory schemes and workplace salaries come into play as well.

“Many of the new auto companies are locating in the right-to-work states in the South, and it's certainly tougher to organize there. But also, oftentimes, in these communities, when the auto companies come in, these are probably towards the top of the wages for workers for largely unskilled workers who might be working and other options they would have might be in retail, etc. These are some of the best wages that they have,” said Devinatz.

Devinatz also said the United Auto Workers has had some corruption in recent years with convictions and sentences of some leaders for misusing worker funds. He said that makes it tougher for non-union workers to buy into an organizing campaign.

“There's a federal monitor running the UAW. They're making changes in the structure of the UAW. It used to be delegates to the convention would vote for the top officers that were elected. Now, they're looking at a direct vote for the membership. So, the UAW’s reputation takes a hit,” said Devinatz.

He also noted there is corruption in businesses, and other unions. Though historically not most unions.

Devinatz said the historical reasons to unionize — workplace conditions, worker safety, and as a balancing force to potential poor or exploitive management by businesses — all remain relevant today.

The history that Rivian's predecessor plant owned by Mitsubishi was organized by the UAW has a psychological effect that says unionization is possible, though there may not be much overlap in the workforce, Devinatz said.

He said he's not sure the presence of the Workers’ Rights Amendment on the November ballot in Illinois, or its passage would affect either Rivian or the UAW in a unionization question.

The process is usually quiet for a long period, as it has been at the Rivian plant, as the union contacts sympathetic workers and identifies potential leaders for a campaign.

In some right-to-work states, Devinatz said companies counter in screening procedures for hiring to try to weed people out who they might think have pro union sympathies, or who were union members before.

“Usually when employers find out an organizing drive is going on, what they would like to do is try to squash the attempt as soon as possible. Oftentimes, they are trying to work underground,” said Devinatz.

Thirty percent of workers at a facility must sign an authorization card indicating interest in a union for an election to go forward. Union certification requires that election to have a simple majority in favor. Devinatz said that matters to workers and turnout on both sides is typically more than 90%.

A significant portion of UAW members are not in the auto industry. The formal name of the UAW is the United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. Devinatz said the UAW and other traditionally industrial unions have broadened their franchise in recent decades. For instance, the UAW has organized graduate research teaching assistants, legal aid lawyers, undergraduate residential assistants, and insurance company clerical workers.

Unions have had some success in the last year in companies that have been resistant in the past, though not in the manufacturing sector. From December of 2021 to now, 200 Starbucks stores have gone union. The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. voted for a union, though that remains in dispute before the National Labor Relations Board. The Amazon labor union did win outright in New York. A Chipotle in Michigan went union as well.

“This is certainly related to COVID, the great resignation, and the shortage of labor," said Devinatz. "Workers in some of these places, were saying, 'Hey, look, I'm working at this job. The wages aren't very good. The working conditions aren't very good.' And they're thinking, if things don't work out here, I can get another job at these wages. So, let's take a stand and organize.”

He said a lingering effect of the Great Recession of 2008 is that some college graduates remained underemployed at places like Starbucks, and decided they would stand up for themselves, and became key in some of those organizing efforts.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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