It was a bitter blow for the United Auto Workers when it narrowly lost a bid to represent assembly line workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn. plant. The results provide lessons for the once-mighty union.
It was a down and dirty fight. Hourly workers voted 833-776 against the union, keeping foreign automakers with plants in the South free of organized labor. It was the second union rejection at the plant in five years.
While the German automaker officially kept a neutral stance, there was heavy politicking for a “no” vote by prominent politicians, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, both Republicans.
They said the UAW presence would scuttle economic growth in the state, making it less attractive to manufacturers who otherwise might come to or expand in Tennessee. In perhaps an unprecedented move, Gov. Lee met privately with the workers in April to argue against the union. Blackburn said in advance, “We don’t need union bosses in Detroit telling Tennessee what’s best for our workers.”
The union, based in Detroit, knew the stakes were high, and it worked feverishly to get approval to represent 1,700 full-time workers. The plant, opened in 2011, also has about 3,200 temporary workers. The union has about 5,000 members in Tennessee working at General Motors plants in Spring Hill and Memphis. And, all of VW’s major plants worldwide are unionized, providing a measure of hope to the UAW.
The union contends there were “threats” and “intimidation” that affected the outcome, but the political sway-power and at least one other issue seem to have made the difference.
One ding against the UAW, raised by some prior to the vote, was the recent corruption problems among some key players at the union. In the past two years, five people related to the UAW, including one top official, have been convicted of misspent union or union-automaker funds or related crimes, and most are serving or have served time behind bars. None of it involved the VW organizing effort.
This is not the way the UAW wanted to enter its nationwide contract talks with GM, Ford Motor, and Fiat Chrysler, likely to start next month.
But the vote shows the UAW, which once had 1.5 million members and now is down to 400,000, that winning in the country’s current labor environment isn’t easy, especially in the South. To do so, it needs to keep its own house clean and to find ways to counter dire economic predictions by politicians, perhaps using the grassroots community activism shown by striking teachers in West Virginia that won community support rather just pursuing a media campaign to try to win votes in the plant.