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Ron Radosh

Why the Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Voted Against the UAW

February 15th, 2014 - 10:27 am

“The United Auto Workers union suffered a crushing defeat Friday, falling short in an election in which it seemed to have a clear path to organizing workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.,” the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday. “The setback is a bitter defeat because the union had the cooperation of Volkswagen management and the aid of Germany’s powerful IG Metall union, yet it failed to win a majority among the plants 1,550 hourly workers.”

One cannot emphasize the magnitude of this loss. What it clearly spells out is the irrelevance of the old industrial unions in today’s world. They have become nothing less than reactionary institutions. It is no longer the heyday of the union movement, which once was necessary and helped create a middle class in our country in the 1930s and ’40s.

How different a situation existed in that bygone era. When Ford and GM workers tried to gain representation for collective bargaining, they were met with an onslaught of fierce opposition from the auto manufacturers. First there were the sit-down strikes in 1936 and 1937 at GM and Chrysler, and the brutal attack on workers by Ford management. They responded to organizing with the famous attack on the workers by company thugs, goons, and the local police, who cooperated with management. The culmination was the most famous event in modern labor’s fight to organize, the Battle of the Overpass at the River Rouge Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

In our own era, the workers at the Tennessee Volkswagen factory had the support and encouragement of Volkswagen for unionization. Both the UAW and the European IG Metall union convinced Volkswagen management to engage in talks with the UAW in the United States, and not even to propagandize against unionization among the workforce. As the WSJ article notes, “the election was also extraordinary because Volkswagen chose to cooperate closely with the UAW.” As a labor lawyer who previously worked for the leftist SEIU put it, “usually, companies fight” union drives.

So when a major corporation urges unionization and sides with the UAW, and the workers vote in a free NLRB-supervised election to not unionize, it is a very big deal indeed. Nationally, the decline in the strength of unions has had its effect on the UAW. During the heyday of the union, it represented 1.5 million workers; now, it represents only 400,000. If Walter Reuther were still alive, he would be stunned at the reversal of the fortunes of the union he worked so hard to build. Indeed, in Michigan — once the very stronghold of the union –the state has put into place a right-to-work law that allows workers to drop their membership in unions, including the UAW, if they choose to do so.

The other issue in the campaign was the effort of the UAW and Volkswagen to create what is called a “works council,” a committee composed of both union and nonunion employees who negotiate with management on day-to-day work issues that arise in the factory. Such councils are standard arrangements in German factories, as well as in other countries in Europe. They allow for settlement of issues in a manner that creates labor peace and promotes better conditions in the workplace, without the threat of a strike. But according to American labor law, they cannot be established unless an outside union like the UAW legally represents the workers.  Because Volkswagen wanted one, they chose to support the UAW organizing effort.

When it comes to wages, it turns out that at the Southern plant, a starting worker earns $19.50 an hour without a union, while his counterpart working in Michigan earns only $15.50 an hour. So wages do not compel a worker to support unionization. The foreign- owned plants, it seems, pay better than the American auto manufacturers.

Then there are the unspoken social issues, which I’ll discuss on the following page.

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Top Rated Comments   
I think the run-up to WW II and, especially, the War Labor Board are what really brought about the middle class based on industrial workers. Prior to passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, membership in a union and recognition of a union by an employer were both strictly voluntary. The NLRA made recognition by an employer mandatory on a showing of majority support and countenanced creation of the "union shop" in which being a member in good standing of the recognized union was a condition of employment.

Most of the big UAW battles of the late '30s were not strikes or work stoppages or even legal concerted activity as that phrase has meaning in the NLRA of that day. They were demonstrations and protests trying to get the automakers to recognize the union, which at the time had neither a formal showing of interest, i.e., 30% of the employees having signed cards, nor having won a recognition election. The famous "Battle of the Overpass" was not between Ford and its employees but rather was between UAW organizers trespassing on Ford property and Ford security guards. Foolishly, Ford gave Reuther and his pals an "Alinsky Moment" with their violent attack on the demonstrators. Likewise, the famous GM sit down strike, the real lynchpin of organization of the auto industry was an illegal job action and the "strikers" were trespassers that GM had a legal right to remove. The real battles weren't legal battles in the realm of collective bargaining but rather political battles in the realm of public opinion and political power.

By '41, the last giant, Ford, fell. Did you notice how few Ford vehicles were used by the US military in WWII? River Rouge was used to build mostly Consolidated B-24 Liberators, which since they were being license built made Ford essentially a sub-contractor in its own plant. WWII vehicle production went to those who'd been more cooperative with the UAW and the Democrats, GM, Chrysler, and even Studebaker/Packard. Democrats rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies isn't new to the Obama Regime.

The state of the law and practice in labor relations of those days was that a dispute between a union and an employer that couldn't be amicably resolved almost always resulted in a strike. The no-strike, no-lockout clause and its quid pro quo, binding arbitration of grievances was very rare. Consequently, production was constantly interrupted by labor disputes and strikes. The War Labor Board concluded that war production was too vital to allow interruption and imposed what we could call today "project labor agreements" as a part of War Production contracts.

In War Labor Board template contracts, the employees were unionized in union shops, even in The South. I still have my Dad's union button and card from his days building Liberty Ships at Southeastern Shipyard in Savannah, GA. War Production contracts required a no strike, no lock-out clause for the duration of the contract and the quid quo pro for giving up the right to strike was that the union and the employer submitted their dispute to a neutral arbitrator whose decision was binding. These War Labor Board contracts serve as the template for most modern US labor agreements in both the public and private sectors even today.

Essentially, the civilian workforce was unionized by the government for the duration of WWII. Having the whole Country unionized for them by the government wasn't good enough for some of the unions and WWII was not without labor disputes, especially in coal and steel. With the end of the war but not immediately of wage and price controls, labor became extraordinarily restless and much of it became more and more openly communist. I don't think we would have liked to have seen what would have happened to the US war effort had the USSR reached some separate peace with Japan.

Union abuses and usurpations during and, especially, just after the War led to the Taft-Hartley Amendments to the NLRA, which was renamed the Labor-Management Relations Act. You can tell immediately which side of the labor-management ditch someone comes from by whether they call it the National Labor Relations Act or the Labor-Management Relations Act. Old union hands will not allow the actual modern name of the law to pass their lips. The LMRA sharply curtailed union power, especially in the political realm by outlawing actions against non-parties and other guerrilla theater activities such as those that had led to organization of the auto industry. And most significantly, it allowed states to outlaw compulsory union membership under LMRA contracts. About half the states did so almost immediately and the balance between union and right to work states had been pretty stable since the '50s until 2010. With the enactment of right to work statutes in the South and West, the flight from the unionized North to the South and West began in the '50s and union membership and power
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Likely has more to do with the sensibilities of the workers than much else-- people in that neck of the woods were largely raised to be self sufficient, rather than the victim mentality that is much more common elsewhere. VW is obviously taking care of them and they'd rather not have to deal with corrupt middlemen between them and their paycheck.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a former UAW member, one born and bred in Detroit, whose Grandfather was on that bridge in '41, all I can say 'It's About DAMN Time!'
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (61)
All Comments   (61)
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"the union movement, which once was necessary and helped create a middle class in our country in the 1930s and ’40s."

Well, Mr. Radosh has [mostly] left the leftist mindset, but he hasn't jettisoned all of it's carefully crafted lies.

Unions were never "necessary", and have always been evil in both principle and action.

39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Worker Council sounds similar to the WE Deming Quality Circle concept that supposedly revolutionized the Japanese auto industry. In the 50's he tried to introduce it to the American companies but management feared they would become communist party cells. The American companies kept turning out crap and it took years for them to catch up with the Japanese in quality. I wonder if the European unions are as mobbed up and politically involved as the American ones.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
No, they have nothing in common. Totally different purposes and functions.

39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I wouldn't be too hasty in celebrating this loss. With the Obama administration looking to make up to the unions for the ACA snafoo, it wouldn't surprise me to see the DOJ create an investigating body to find out what happened. And then there is the NLRB to contend with. And surely the Civil rights division of the DOJ will have something to say. Remember, it's not what the people want that's important.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank God the employees did the right thing. My 2012 VW Passat TDI seats five & gets over forty MPG.

Country folk combined with German engineering make one heck of a car. You did good Tennessee.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Born in Mt Clemens Michigan and former UAW member (Dodge Truck, Warren Assembly). All I can say is great. My Dad was a 100% union man. He worked 3 days a week during the Great Depression & supported 2 families. They had "Sit Ins" then and was beat by the Pinkertons.
Unions had and have their place but we need a balance between rich unions of today and companies of the turn of the century with no controls.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good for them! I can still consider a VW for my next car, thanks to this vote.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
How did the UAW get 600 votes in red state TN. 600 workers wanted to support a far left progressive future USA?. How is that working for Venezuela.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have been a union member in 2 different companies many years ago. The ONLY thing one of them got right was that our union dues covered the best Health Insurance I have ever had before or since. In today's world the PROPER function of a union would be to serve as the "employee benefits administrators". This would include all H.R. functions, all benefits administration, ongoing training, running a day-care center, planning/executing on leisure events (Christmas Party/Summer Family Picnic), pension plan, company stock, & EVERYTHING else that positively impacts an employees life. It would NOT include saving the jobs of those who don't work when they are supposed to, show up to work under the influence, or operate dangerous equipment in an unsafe (non-standard) manner. It also would NOT base pay on longevity but on performance. This would free up the company's time & resources to focus on the areas of the company that produce "profit not overhead"!! This more complimentary role, with the company focusing on profit & the union focusing on benefits is the creative way to insure quality products, a safe & stable work environment and maximum profitability for all!!
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The UAW became bigger than the "big corporations' they used to bargain with at cost to their own membership. Hubris/Nemesis
Nothing is too big to fail.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The unions just wanted more money for themselves. Like those in the government, they do not care about those they supposedly represent, just themselves. This is becoming clear to all thinking people as they see their wealth and freedoms being destroyed by big _______ (fill in the blank.)
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
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