Politics & Policy

How the UAW Lost

UAW organizers are left all dressed up with no place to demagogue.

Left and Right agree about the workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee rejecting the United Auto Workers’ bid to represent them: The result was stunning. “Everybody but the UAW had both hands tied behind their backs,” Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) told ​the conservative Wall Street Journal. “How could a union lose an unopposed campaign?” was the question the left-wing magazine In These Times posed.

Indeed, Volkswagen didn’t oppose the union and even invited its representatives inside the plant to lobby workers. The German auto company is a big fan of cooperative worker-management councils at its factories, and the UAW hired lawyers who claimed VW couldn’t have one at its Tennessee plant unless it was unionized. The UAW spent an estimated $5 million to unionize the plant as part of its push to gain a toehold in non-union auto plants in Southern states.

But despite VW’s passivity, there was some opposition, and it proved pivotal in the union’s 53 percent to 47 percent defeat. “Political conservatives can take credit for crushing the UAW in Tennessee,” concluded BusinessWeek. In the forefront was the Center for Worker Freedom, a spinoff of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Matt Patterson, the Center’s executive director, says his group didn’t have the resources of the UAW, so it had to pick its targets. “Ultimately, we were looking at an electorate of 1,500 folks we had to reach,” he told me. He analyzed all the possible ways workers could drive to the Chattanooga plant and put up 13 rotating billboards highlighting the UAW’s support for liberal politicians (“The United Obama Workers”) and the role the union’s demands had played in the decline of the U.S. auto industry in Detroit (“Almost every job lost at U.S. car factories in the last 30 years has occurred at unionized plants” — Reuters). The billboards’ messages were reinforced with commercials on local radio stations timed to air during the period just before shifts at the plant began. Local newspapers and TV stations covered the campaign and featured haunting pictures of the devastation of Detroit, which with the decline of the auto industry has gone from being the city having the highest median income in America in 1950 to bankruptcy today.

But there were other factors in the union’s defeat that the UAW itself was responsible for. The union and VW signed a 22-page “neutrality” agreement laying out what union representation of the plant’s workers would mean. Among its provisions were ones that seemed to limit how much in raises the union would demand for the workers. The UAW and Volkswagen agreed to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that [Volkswagen] enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America.” At other auto plants represented by the UAW, that understanding has recently meant a two-tier wage structure that pays new hires less than veteran workers. Factoring in cost-of-living differences, that means that today a new hire at a UAW plant in Detroit may make less than a non-union worker in Tennessee.

“We got people to realize they had already negotiated a deal behind their backs — [workers] didn’t get to have a say-so,” worker Mike Jarvis, a leader of the anti-UAW faction in the plant, told reporters after the results of the election were announced.

“We were only given one choice [of a union],” added Mike Burton, another plant worker. “When you are only given one choice, it’s BS. I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW. There are great unions out there, and we just weren’t offered any of them.” He pointed out that the UAW has lost 75 percent of its membership since 1980.

Despite that track record, the union almost got entrenched inside the plant door in Chattanooga without an election. Under federal labor law, a union can be certified via “card check” if a majority of workers sign a permission card. Unions like card check because they can intimidate workers into signing away their support. In Chattanooga, the UAW claimed that a majority had signed. But then eight workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the UAW had used “misrepresentations, coercion, threats, and promises” to try to avoid a regular election. Once that whistle had been blown, enough workers who hadn’t signed a card-check form demanded and won the right to a secret-ballot election. If anything, the VW vote in Chattanooga demonstrates how dangerous and unrepresentative the card-check system can be. After all, when workers could vote behind a curtain, they rejected the union.

In the end, it looks as if Volkswagen is going to find a way to establish the works council that the UAW claimed couldn’t exist without it. “Our goal continues to be to determine the best method for establishing a works council,” Frank Fischer, head of the Chattanooga factory, said in an e-mail after the vote. Indeed, U.S. labor laws don’t prohibit workers from forming a group to deal with workplace problems. In other words, the UAW was bluffing in its claims that it was needed at the VW plant. The company practically invited the UAW in to avoid trouble, but now that its own workers have rejected the union, it can proceed on its own.

All this leaves UAW organizers all dressed up with no place to demagogue. “If the union can’t win [in Chattanooga], it can’t win anywhere,” concludes Steve Silvia, an American University professor who studies labor unions. Once again, the union appears to have successfully talked itself out of having a seat at the table.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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