Volkswagen workers reject UAW in Tenn.; Union looks for Plan B to enter South


Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at the plant voted 712 to 626 to reject unionization at the plant. (Erik Schelzig/AP)
February 15

Everything seemed to be going the United Auto Workers’ way: A company actively in support, laws that don’t require workers to pay dues even if they vote for a union, automatic membership in a German-style “works council” that would give employees real authority over day-to-day matters at the plant. A “yes” ballot was risk-free.

But late on Friday night, 712 employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voted against joining the union — more than enough to overwhelm the 626who voted in favor.

On its face, the vote was shocking to supporters.

“My company is freely offering me voting rights,” said pro-union worker Chris Brown, in the days preceding the vote. “Why would I turn it down? They want my voice.”

The news is a huge blow for the UAW, which has struggled for decades to organize foreign automakers drawn to the South in part because of its low union density — a phenomenon that has dragged down wages even at Detroit’s unionized Big Three. After years of discouraging losses, the UAW had staked its Southern strategy on winning this one and blamed threats and intimidation by politically motivated third parties for turning the tide against them.

“I think it was unprecedented that outside forces, whether it was the Koch brothers and the money they spent here, whether it was [Republican Sen. Bob] Corker, whether it was Grover Norquist, all these people who were going to come in and threaten the company and threaten workers, to me was outrageous,” said UAW President Bob King, at a news conference after the tally was announced.

In a high-profile public campaign, Republican politicians threatened to withhold further tax incentives if the plant organized, while D.C. conservative activist Grover Norquist plastered the town with anti-union billboards and churned out UAW-bashing op-eds. As the vote commenced, Corker even said he’d been “assured” that Volkswagen would make a planned new SUV in Chattanooga rather than Mexico if workers voted no, even though the company has said consistently that the vote had no bearing on its choice.

The real ground game, by contrast, came by way of a dedicated core of anti-union workers who handed out fliers, voiced their opposition through a Web site and social media, and held a big meeting Feb. 8 to make their case. “It just spread,” said Mike Jarvis, in a group gathered outside the news conference in the rain on Friday night, wearing blue T-shirts with a crossed-out UAW. “I told two people who told four people who told eight people, like a pyramid kind of thing.”

The winning argument? Jarvis said people on the fence were persuaded by a clause in a Neutrality Agreement negotiated between Volkswagen and the UAW before the election, establishing a principle of “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages” that Volkswagen enjoys over its competitors. In other words, keeping wages and benefits from getting too high relative to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — which Jarvis calculated would take $3 per hour off his current pay.

The problem is, what Jarvis interpreted as wage suppression was exactly the kind of innovation that the union was counting on to deliver a win. Since the auto bailouts in 2009 and in a departure from its militant past, the UAW has shifted toward a more cooperative approach that it says is aimed at helping companies succeed. “With every company that we work with, we’re concerned about competitiveness,” King said, when asked why the clause was included. “We are showing that companies that succeed by this cooperation can have higher wages and benefits because of the joint success.”

That’s the pitch that’s supposed to make companies more amenable to the idea of allowing their workers to have representation. But what if the prospect of too much coziness with management spooks the workers themselves? Successful organizing campaigns need a scary opposition — and there was no way to make Volkswagen into such a figure. “Volkswagen’s a class act,” said UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams.

Ironically, Volkswagen’s generous benefits might have made organizing more difficult, since most workers were content with what they had, and enough were persuaded that a union might just rock the boat. Take it from Steve, the father of a quality control manager at the plant who voted “no” — he withheld his last name to protect his son from controversy — who just doesn’t see why unions are necessary.

“Well, you know, I think at one time they were very useful. But now, I don’t know that you get that much benefit from them,” said Steve, while eating dinner with his wife, Candy, at a Waffle House on Wednesday. “When they first came in, it was a good thing, because workers were really getting taken advantage of. But it’s not so much the case anymore.”

Jarod Roll, a labor historian at the University of Mississippi, noted that “the South has historically had a low-wage economy where good-paying jobs have been hard to find and to keep. That historical experience has influence when people get good jobs because it makes them reluctant to do anything that might put those jobs at risk, like join a union.”

The narrow defeat will have repercussions. The UAW had already begun to apply a similar organizing model to a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., figuring that parent company Daimler might also be more willing to accept a works council. Now, there’s little competitive pressure to do so.

The biggest fallout of the loss, however, isn’t for the workers who already have jobs at the German-owned plants. Rather, it’s the ones who work at places such as the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., which has gradually been replacing its full-time positions with temporary jobs that pay much less and grant no sense of stability. The UAW lost a vote there in 2001, and while it still has organizers on the ground in Smyrna, workers will look to Chattanooga and wonder why so many thought the union was a bad idea.

Of course, the UAW had other headwinds, besides political animosity and the lack of a bogeyman to campaign against. Detroit’s bankruptcy last fall cast a shadow over its efforts, as union opponents effectively tied imagery of the belly-up city to bloated union benefits. That legacy has left the autoworkers with an even more negative impression in the eyes of those who may never have met a union worker — or never thought they did.

“The public image of the autoworkers is very negative,” says Kristin Dzickek, a labor specialist at the Center for Automotive Research. “But if you think of the public image of UPS drivers, nurses, people you interact with in day-to-day jobs who may also be union members, they’re not seen as thugs. I don’t think anyone sees their UPS driver as a thug, even though some of them make more than autoworkers do. There’s not that same kind of attack on unionization in other sectors.”

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