Anti-union vote at Tennessee VW plant: biggest election of 2014, or duh?

A debate ensues over the import of last week's vote in which workers at a VW plant in Tennessee said no thanks to joining the United Auto Workers – even though Volkswagen itself wouldn't have minded.

Erik Schelzig/AP/File
An employee at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., works on a Passat sedan in 2012.

How much to read into last week's decision by autoworkers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., to refuse to join the United Auto Workers? Depending on whom you heed, it's either more a more important vote than the forthcoming November elections or it amounts to business as usual (yawn) in the union-averse South.

Interest in Friday's one-plant vote was higher among the political class than might ordinarily be expected, taking place against the backdrop of an election year in which Democrats intend to pound the theme of income inequality and the struggles of the middle class. In the end, 53 percent of workers at the VW plant rejected the UAW bid to organize – even though Volkswagen itself tacitly supported the union drive. (Half of the German automaker's corporate board is drawn from the ranks of workers.) 

The company's unusual position, Republicans' stakes in continuing their party's opposition to Big Labor, and the Democrats' renewed denunciation of the widening rich-poor income gap in America all contributed to the heightened interest. It revived on Wednesday, after a VW executive told a German newspaper that the company may decline to build any more plants in America's South if the UAW is barred.

To be sure, the vote in Chattanooga was foremost a setback for the UAW, whose membership has declined by 42 percent since 2004. Two years ago, UAW chief Bob King said, “I don’t think there is a long-term future for the UAW” unless the Southern auto plants – many of them run by foreign companies – can be unionized.

Moreover, it hardly quells anti-labor sentiments, which have been creeping northward. In 2013, for instance, industrial Michigan became a right-to-work state, meaning that union membership cannot be a condition of employment. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) famously battled with public-sector unions in 2011, largely eliminating collective bargaining rights for most of them. 

On the right, Washington Post columnist George Will framed the vote as a “shattering” defeat for organized labor and “liberalism nationally,” and as a victory for “entrepreneurial federalism” – what the late Library of Congress historian Daniel Boorstin defined as the wholesome competition between states made possible by nimble labor and tax laws.

“The year’s most important election will not occur in November, when more than 90 million votes will be cast for governors and national legislators,” Mr. Will writes. “The most important election, crucial to an entire region’s economic well-being and to the balance of the nation’s political competition, has already occurred.”

That sentiment seemed to jibe at least partly with the political stakes. Local politicians compared the vote with the 1863 Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Anti-union lobbying groups bought billboard ad space in Chattanooga, upon which they substituted “Obama” in place of “Auto” in the title “United Auto Workers.”

Some workers who voted no even drew a line at a press conference on Friday between Detroit’s long-term decline and the UAW's historical involvement with the Big Three automakers.

“It’s not that [Chattanooga workers] don’t know any better, but they may realize, OK, they’re voting against their own short-term self-interest, but they may also be afraid that their son won’t get a job because they recognize that union plants, by and large, will hire fewer people than nonunion plants,” says Thomas Smith, an Emory University labor economist, in Atlanta.

To add fuel to the fire, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee suggested before the vote that rejection of the UAW would guarantee that the VW plant would expand its one Passat line to include production of a mid-size SUV. VW officials denied that, but Senator Corker, who helped negotiate a nearly $600 million tax break for VW to bring a plant to Chattanooga, refused to back down, citing an unnamed company source.

Meanwhile, the UAW reportedly may ask the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), itself the center of Republican resistance to Obama nominees, to investigate possible unfair labor practices in the run-up to the VW vote. And UAW critics point to the union’s opposition to a secret ballot versus a so-called “card check” vote in which there can be more pressure on workers to toe a party line. A judge finally oversaw a secret ballot.

Others, however, are more sanguine about the import of the worker vote in Chattanooga. Criticizing the right for using Big Labor as a punching bag even as unions struggle for relevance, MSNBC’s Timothy Noah says conservatives' fears are overblown that Obama will use the NLRB as a proxy bully against corporations. “If that constitutes a labor revival, wake me when it’s over,” Mr. Noah writes.

Others suggest that political partisans are overstating the meaning of the vote against the UAW. 

“I don’t think that this is a new beacon or some kind of flag that says things are going wrong nationally – this is Tennessee being Tennessee,” says Emory's Mr. Smith. “Ultimately, this tells me that union organizers thought they had a good chance, they thought there was a turning tide, but they might not have caught that tide right. Ultimately it means they weren’t able to unionize a foreign automobile plant in a Southern state. Shocker.”

Saying that Chattanooga workers were right to say no to what it called the UAW’s overbearing impact on company bottom lines, Bloomberg News, in an op-ed Tuesday, put faith in the German “work councils” that Volkswagen will try to put in place in its Chattanooga plant, if US labor law allows them without a union in house. Work councils are collaborative units that focus not just on worker rights, but also on production-line efficiencies.

“Rejecting the union needn't mean rejecting the idea of effective worker representation,” the news service’s editorial board writes. “The decision is an opportunity for labor and management to show the auto industry in particular, and corporate America in general, that they can work more productively together.”

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