Media Moves

Union defeated In The South

February 17, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

It looks like workers in Tennessee have decided that unionizing still isn’t for them. The United Automobile Workers attempt to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga failed, something most of the media dubbed a sweeping defeat for organizing the entire South.

Here’s the story from Reuters by Bernie Woodall:

In a stinging defeat that could accelerate the decades-long decline of the United Auto Workers, Volkswagen AG workers voted against union representation at a Chattanooga, Tennessee plant, which had been seen as organized labor’s best chance to expand in the U.S. South.

The loss, 712 to 626, capped a sprint finish to a long race and was particularly surprising for UAW supporters, because Volkswagen had allowed the union access to the factory and officially stayed neutral on the vote, while other manufacturers have been hostile to organized labor.

UAW spent more than two years organizing and then called a snap election in an agreement with VW. German union IG Metall worked with the UAW to pressure VW to open its doors to organizers, but anti-union forces dropped a bombshell after the first of three days of voting.

Steven Greenhouse wrote for the New York Times that the move will “derail” UAW president Bob King’s plan to unionize the South:

This will slow and perhaps derail Mr. King’s ambitious plans to unionize other plants in the South. For months, U.A.W. organizers have been contacting workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., with the hope that it might soon follow VW into the union fold.

In a news conference, Mr. King conveyed anger and bafflement at the results. He and his union thought they would win partly because Volkswagen, unlike most American companies, vowed to remain neutral and not oppose unionization.

Mr. King blamed Republican lawmakers for the loss. They made numerous anti-union arguments — and a few threats — to discourage workers from unionizing. Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, contended that auto parts suppliers would not come to the Chattanooga area if that meant being located near a unionized VW plant. Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, said VW executives had told him the plant would add a second production line, making sport utility vehicles, if workers rejected the U.A.W. Mr. Corker and some outside conservative groups told workers that the U.A.W. had contributed to the struggles of Detroit’s automakers and would make VW less competitive — a view echoed by some workers.

 Adding to the anti-union pressure, Bo Watson, a state senator who represents a Chattanooga suburb, said the Republican-controlled Legislature was unlikely to approve further subsidies to Volkswagen if the plant unionized. Some workers feared that his threat would cause Chattanooga to lose the planned S.U.V. line to a VW plant in Mexico.

The Wall Street Journal story by Melanie Trottman and Kris Maher added this context about the decline of unions and their waning influence:

Last year, unions represented 11.3% of U.S. workers, flat with 2012 but down from about 20% in 1983. The private-sector membership rate was just 6.7%, compared with 35.3% in the public sector. Even union officials concede private-sector workplaces have been the most difficult to penetrate in recent decades.

More recently, unions’ political clout and financial coffers have suffered as they’ve fought bruising battles with lawmakers in cash-strapped states. Unions have marked some victories, but there have been losses in states that have laid off public-sector union members, curbed collective-bargaining rights and adopted right-to-work laws that allow employees to opt out of union membership and dues.

Amid membership declines at industrial unions like the UAW, the AFL-CIO has begun to partner with outside nonprofit groups and has tried to organize more low-wage service workers. The federation also announced a plan last year to start focusing more on Southern organizing and politics, particularly in Texas, which last year had one-fourth as many union members as New York state despite having 2.7 million more wage and salaried employees, according to Labor Department statistics.

The UAW launched its own southern strategy in recent years to organize foreign-owned auto makers throughout the traditionally antiunion region. But after this week’s Volkswagen vote, the prospect for gaining members at the UAW, and perhaps more broadly, looks bleaker now. This latest loss is also spurring debate over who is to blame for union defeats: the unions themselves or outside political forces that don’t want organized labor in their backyards. In Tennessee, politicians and out-of-state organizations mobilized against the Volkswagen vote.

Much of the coverage of the vote centered around the notion of unions continuing to lose in the south and that Republicans were being singled out by union leaders as the cause. The Los Angeles Times reported in a story by Paresh Dave that the UAW may try to appeal the vote.

Whether they do or not, it’s clear that unions still have a long way to go in areas where they’re not traditionally embraced. Many in the South are concerned about losing much-needed jobs if unions are allowed into manufacturing plants. While it might seem like a win on the surface, many workers are reluctant to change anything that might jeopardize their paychecks. And that’s a powerful lobby for the UAW to overcome.

Subscribe to TBN

Receive updates about new stories in the industry daily or weekly.

Subscribe to TBN

Receive updates about new stories in the industry.