“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.