Stripped of all the rhetoric rationalizing why the United Auto Workers lost a critical election at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., one indisputable fact remains:
Most of the plant’s more than 1,500 hourly workers, protected by a secret ballot from union intimidation, said they wanted nothing to do with the union.
The three-day election ending February 14 was widely regarded as the UAW’s best chance at cracking the auto industry in the right-to-work South. Even union president Bob King had said before the election that the future of the union and organized labor in the auto industry depended on a victory.
Unclear is the future of “card check” legislation that Democrats have sponsored. Under card check, if a majority of a company’s workers sign cards seeking a union, the union may come in without a secret ballot election. Because most VW workers had signed cards, no secret ballot election would have been held if the legislation had been law.
VW decided to hold a secret ballot election after some workers alleged the UAW was intimidating them into signing cards. In other words, while a majority signed cards, most of the same workers rejected the UAW when they had a chance to cast a secret ballot.
In anticipation of a win, UAW organizers had been laying the groundwork with Nissan workers in Tennessee and Alabama, and Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama. Now the union has to regroup.
Union Blames Outside Influence
Volkswagen workers rejected UAW representation 712-to-626, leaving the UAW to blame “outside, politically motivated third parties” (e.g. Republicans and some business interests) for the defeat. King singled out Sen. Bob Corker. He told MSNBC the Tennessee Republican had “entered into the fray just to intimidate workers. I’ve never seen a campaign where politicians have threatened workers and the company.”
One Republican state senator, Bo Watson, warned two days before the election that acceptance of the UAW would mean “additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for [VW] expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”
King later said such outside influences might prompt the union to file a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board, a body that has become notoriously pro-labor under the Obama administration. Such a challenge could lead to the voiding of the election.
VW Gives Tacit Okay
Volkswagen had taken an officially neutral position on the UAW’s organizing, which some had suggested was an endorsement of the kind of “works councils” that are common at VW plants in Germany. Such a council, which reportedly would be the first in America, would have limited power under U.S. law. Rather than bargaining for wages, benefits and working conditions, for example, its role would have been limited to consulting with the company on such issues as scheduling and safety.
Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW Chattanooga and manager of the plant, noted some enthusiasm for the creation of a council, even among workers who voted against the UAW. Finding a way to establish a council under U.S. law continues to be a company goal, he said.
Creation of a council, according to UAW statements, appears to be the union’s fallback Plan B, even though some labor experts suggest that the plant’s workers would have to set up a separate, independent union to do so. In Europe, a works council is not empowered to strike, although it’s unclear, according to some experts, whether U.S. law would allow a walkout.
Whatever positive spin the UAW wishes to put on the vote, it came as a bitter defeat. BloombergBusinessWeek.com went so far as to summarize the defeat as “crushing, brutal, and devastating.”
Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy., said the defeat was all the more difficult because the company “for all intents and purposes” was backing the union by “keeping the opposition out.” Indeed, the company had invited the union to come into its plant to organize the workers; back in Germany union representatives sit on VW’s board of directors
“This definitely was a body blow for the union,” Venuccio said. Yet he expects the union to react “like a cornered wounded animal [and] will ramp up its campaign” against other non-union automakers, he said.
‘Workers Don’t Want Unions’
David Denholm, president of the non-profit research and education group, Public Service Research Foundation, saw the defeat as a reflection of the continuing trend of worker dissatisfaction with organized labor.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t find the UAW’s defeat all that stunning,” he said in an email. “The unions claim that they are blocked by employer opposition. That’s a cover up for the fact, proven by their own research, that the majority of American workers don’t want unions.”
Union membership has declined to about 11 percent of the American workforce, from 35 percent in the 1950s. In the private sector, only 6.7 percent of workers belong to unions.
Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, was blunt about the impact of the defeat: “It wasn’t just a loss of the UAW, it was a loss for the AFL-CIO and the entire labor movement,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “They have product they’re selling and people aren’t buying it.”
Dennis Byrne ([email protected]) is a Chicago-based writer.