Companies & Industries

UAW's Devastating Defeat in Tennessee: Four Blunt Points


Workers on the production line at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photograph by Mark Elias/Bloomberg

Workers on the production line at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

As if anyone needed more evidence of the union movement’s demise, a United Auto Workers defeat Friday in Tennessee illustrated organized labor’s profound weakness in America. Employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga rejected UAW membership by a vote of 712-626. Consider these four blunt points:

1. If the UAW couldn’t win this one, what can they win? Volkswagen didn’t even oppose unionization. The German carmaker likes to sponsor cooperative worker-management councils at its factories, and formal UAW participation could have facilitated that arrangement. Still, a majority of employees said they didn’t want the UAW representing them. The defeat creates an enormous obstacle to labor’s ambition to organize at other foreign-owned auto plants in the South.

2. Putting ideology and campaign finance first, political conservatives can take credit for crushing the UAW in Tennessee. Republican politicians and Washington-based conservative activists such as antitax guru Grover Norquist drove the campaign to oppose unionization. These outsiders couldn’t give a hoot about the working conditions or benefits available to auto workers. The conservatives want to do anything they can to diminish union muscle—especially campaign spending—in state and national elections. Bo Watson, a GOP state senator in Tennessee, articulated the scorched-earth, culture-war strategy. He condemned Volkswagen as “unfair, unbalanced, and quite frankly, un-American” for taking a neutral position on unionization. Um, Bo? Everyone knows VW is German, not American; that doesn’t make the company an enemy of America. They are investing here, after all. And what exactly was unfair about letting workers decide for themselves whether or not to bring in a union?

In addition to Watson’s style of incoherence, politicians such as Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee employed borderline dishonesty to sway workers. As reported by Bloomberg News, Corker said turning back the UAW would guarantee that Volkswagen picks Chattanooga to build a new sport-utility vehicle for the U.S. market. Not quite, countered Frank Fischer, chairman and chief executive officer of Volkswagen’s local unit. Fischer said the union vote had no bearing on where the SUV is built. I’d take Fischer’s word over Corker’s, especially since it’s Fischer’s employer that would be building the new assembly line.

3. Volkswagen comes out looking pretty darned good. The company said it will still try to find a way to set up a worker council in Chattanooga. Despite the unwelcome meddling of Republican politicos, it also promised to try to work with state and local officials to expand the plant. Corporate management teams get plenty of well deserved flak. Sometimes they do the right thing. Bravo, VW.

4. The legacy of Detroit continues to haunt unions. One of the most potent arguments conservatives marshaled to persuade workers to vote no was that a union would bring Detroit’s woes to Chattanooga and discourage local investment. Given Volkswagen’s on-the-record position, the contention seems tendentious at best. But it carried the day with at least some employees. “Look at what happened to the auto manufacturers in Detroit and how they struggled. They all shared one huge factor: the UAW,” Mike Jarvis, a three-year employee told the New York Times outside the Volkswagen plant. “If you look at how the UAW’s membership has plunged, that shows they’re doing a lot wrong.”

Jarvis has his recent labor history right. The UAW has lost 75 percent of its membership since 1979. That’s a lot of momentum to overcome—in Chattanooga, or anywhere else.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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