February 20, 2014

MEGAN MCARDLE: For Auto Unions in South, Is Chattanooga Waterloo?

There have been some fitful attempts to blame this on Republican legislators who launched a public-relations war against the union drive (a big union in the state would presumably divert some of those union dues to campaigning for Democrats). This is weak tea — weaker even than complaints that companies “sabotage” union drives because they are allowed to argue to employees, within tight legal constraints, that the union might not be so great.

If the UAW can’t win in the South when the company basically invites them in, then it can’t win in the South, where all the new auto plants are. Is the problem native anti-union sentiment among Southerners? Did the events of 2008 convince workers that a union would be nothing but trouble? This is a fascinating, and unresolvable, academic debate. It doesn’t change the outcome, which is that the UAW lost when it had things stacked in its favor.

That’s terrible news for the UAW, which desperately needs to grow. It’s not great news for the labor movement at large, either. Auto plants are relatively easy to organize: You have a lot of workers in one place, and those workers create a lot of value with their labor, which means that there’s some room for the union to promise fatter paychecks even after union dues are deducted out. Most of the places unions would theoretically like to organize, such as Walmart, are considerably more challenging — and have bosses who will fight their efforts.

You’d think that now, at a time of great economic insecurity, a union drive would have a lot of appeal. But perhaps that worked against it. The jobs at Volkswagen pay better wages than most in the area. The workers don’t want to risk losing them. And there’s one thing we all know now: Even the mighty UAW can’t guarantee you a job.

Just ask Detroit.