CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (TheStreet) — The United Auto Workers’ failure to organize the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant probably should not have come as a surprise.
Employees voted 712 to 626 not to unionize, a 53% margin in an election in which 53% of eligible employees participated.
The defeat was viewed as crushing for organized labor because it was a rare case in which a company with a plant in the South did not oppose the unionization effort with implied threats and a bevy of expensive anti-union law firms offering advice.
Perhaps, as it turns out, paying for all of that expensive advice has been a waste of money.
A lot of people had expected the UAW to win in this election, perhaps because of VW’s relatively benign position, perhaps because of the union’s continuing series of optimistic press releases, perhaps because the feel-good tenor of the 1979 movie “Norma Rae” still lingers for some. People like to root for the underdog.
In the rest of the world, VW runs its plants with group works councils that include union representatives.
Tennessee, like most of the South, is heavily Republican. The governor is Republican. The two senators are Republicans. Seven of the nine seats in Congress are held by Republicans. Tennessee is not the least unionized state, but in 2013 the share of workers represented by a union or an employee association was 6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is the 13th lowest in the country.
Obviously, most of the states below Tennessee are Republican states. As a matter of creed, Republicans in the South dislike unions, at least in part because successful politicans seek to represent the views of their constituents.South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said recently that “I wear heels, and it’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because we’re kicking the unions every day.”
After the election, the union said it was disappointed, several Tennessee politicians said they were pleased and VW said it would accept the results and move on.
“While we certainly would have liked a victory for workers here, we deeply respect the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council, Volkswagen management and IG Metal for doing their best to create a free and open atmosphere for workers to exercise their basic human right to form a union,” said UAW President Bob King, in a prepared statement.
“While we’re outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering with the basic legal right of workers to form a union, we’re proud that these workers were brave and stood up to the tremendous pressure from outside,” said UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, who directs the union’s transnational program. “We hope this will start a larger discussion about workers’ right to organize.”
While outside groups did become involved in the campaign to defeat the UAW, the most visible opponent was Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga.
“Needless to say, I am thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen and for our community and its future,” Corker said in a brief written statement.
Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book, called the UAW’s failure in Chattanooga “a very serious setback for the union, a setback that will resonate throughout the South and, likely, around the world.
“In VW, the union had management that seemed neutral to positive toward its attempt to organize the plan’s workers, and it still failed to gain certification,” Nerad said. “The UAW’s attempts to organize other non-union plants in the United States are very unlikely to be greeted with as much cooperation from other manufacturers, so this could mark the end to UAW hopes to gain traction in these non-union Southern state plants.”
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