Non-union workers at at Tennessee Volkswagen plant voted to reject being represented by the United Auto Workers union. The vote was 712-626 against the UAW.
The union had pulled out all the stops in order to score their second victory in a right-to-work state. They even had the blessing of Volkswagen management, who were under tremendous pressure from their labor committee back home to unionize the Chattanooga plant.
“This vote was essentially gift-wrapped for the union by Volkswagen,” said Hammond, who previously worked at the Service Employees International Union.
The setback is a major defeat for the UAW’s effort to expand in the growing South, where foreign automakers have 14 assembly plants, eight built in the past decade, said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank in Michigan.
“If this was going to work anywhere, this is where it was going to work,” she said of Chattanooga.
Organizing a Southern plant is so crucial to the union that UAW President Bob King told workers in a speech that the union has no long-term future without it.
“If the union can’t win [in Chattanooga], it can’t win anywhere,” Steve Silvia, a economics and trade professor at American University who has studied labor unions, told the Journal.
But the loss likely means the union will remain quarantined with the Detroit Three, largely in the Midwest and Northeast.
Many viewed VW as the union’s only chance to gain a crucial foothold in the South because other automakers have not been as welcoming as Volkswagen. Labor interests make up half of the supervisory board at VW in Germany, and they questioned why the Chattanooga plant is the only one without formal worker representation. VW wanted a German-style “works council” in Chattanooga to give employees a say over working conditions. The company says U.S. law won’t allow it without an independent union.
In Chattanooga, the union faced stern opposition from Republican politicians who warned that a UAW victory would chase away other automakers who might come to the region.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was the most vocal opponent, saying that he was told that VW would build a new midsized SUV in Chattanooga if workers rejected the union. That was later denied by a VW executive. Other politicians threatened to cut off state incentives for the plant to expand if the union was approved.
UAW President King whined about “outside interference” in the vote:
After 53 percent of the workers voted against his union, King said he was outraged at what he called “outside interference” in the election. He wouldn’t rule out challenging the outcome with the National Labor Relations Board. “It’s never happened in this country before that the U.S. senator, the governor, the leader of the House, the legislature here, threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with a loss of product,” King said. “We’ll look at all our options in the next few days.”
The full weight of the UAW was thrown into this vote, with heavy pressure placed by union reps on workers. One of those workers explained to the New York Times:
Standing outside the Volkswagen plant, Mike Jarvis, a three-year employee who works on the finishing line, said the majority had voted against U.A.W. because they were persuaded the union had hurt Detroit’s automakers.
“Look at what happened to the auto manufacturers in Detroit and how they struggled. They all shared one huge factor: the U.A.W.,” said Mr. Jarvis, who added that he had had bad experiences with other labor unions. “If you look at how the U.A.W’s membership has plunged, that shows they’re doing a lot wrong.”
This isn’t the end of union organizing efforts in southern right-to-work states. There are 13 other plants that the UAW will now target in the south. But Chattanooga workers have shown that when a free and fair election is held with the secret ballot, it will be an uphill climb for the union to make inroads. Also, it isn’t likely that Toyota or other foreign auto makers will support the UAW drive the way that Volkswagen did.