The right's union-busting disgrace: How it won Tennessee's high-stakes auto fight

Republicans promising retribution, and a union promising deference, add up to a devastating union defeat

By Josh Eidelson

Published February 19, 2014 7:52PM (EST)

Sen. Bob Corker       (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Sen. Bob Corker (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

There’s no shortage of culprits for the United Auto Workers’ surprise defeat in last week’s closely watched Volkswagen vote, in which Chattanooga workers rejected becoming the only unionized employees at a fully foreign-owned auto plant in the United States.

Some workers were no doubt swayed by the loud and public pronouncements of top state Republicans, who suggested a vote for the union could get their company punished by politicians, or get their plant punished by their officially neutral company. (As I’ve argued, the use of capital mobility as a cudgel against workers’ organizing is all-too common, though it was an exceptional spectacle to see Republicans fighting full-throttle to bust a union drive while corporate management officially laid down arms.) Others may have voted “no” based on private conversations with lower-level managers, some of whom allegedly veered far from Volkwagen’s official non-union-busting script. Some number presumably were philosophically anti-union from the start and remained so through the election’s unexpected end. (As Cornell’s Kate Bronfenbrenner notes, the South is no monolith, but the Chattanooga plant’s demographics could be expected to offer a more daunting challenge than its less-white, less-male counterparts elsewhere in the region).

A change in any of those variables could have been enough to flip the less-than-50 additional votes that the union needed to eke out a victory Friday night, and set the stage for the German-style “works council” experiment that both UAW and VW declared themselves eager to pursue. But the UAW’s failure to surmount them also illustrates the downsides of its high-profile emphasis on compromise, cooperation and conciliation with management. Along with attacks for allegedly bankrupting Detroit, the UAW was knocked for new-hire wages there that don’t dramatically outpace VW’s, and for pre-committing that a union contract wouldn’t dampen any competitive advantage for the company.

VW employee and “No 2 UAW” website creator Mike Burton told In These Times’ Mike Elk he was “not anti-union” but “anti-UAW,” and that “What the UAW is offering, we can already do without them.” Anti-union employee activist Mike Jarvis told the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis that he won over undecideds by pointing out a clause in the UAW’s neutrality deal with VW stating that “any future agreements shall be guided” by considerations including “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that VWGOA enjoys …”

That concession, along with union pressure from the U.S. and abroad, helped secure VW’s agreement not to fight unionization – no small thing in a country where workers who organize can expect a gauntlet of threats, interrogations and firings, and where even those who win recognition are often stonewalled by revanchist bosses. While the law tells U.S. workers it’s up to them whether to collectively bargain, under our creaky, craven legal regime, few companies actually recognize and bargain in good faith with unions unless they’re enticed or coerced to. Different unions (and often the same union, sometimes in the same campaign) approach that task wielding different sticks and carrots – from mounting strikes or legal attacks, to proffering pro-business lobbying or pre-committing to cheaper contracts.

When I asked UAW president Bob King before last week’s election whether VW workers in Tennessee should get a substantial raise, he pledged to “come together with the company and figure out what’s fair compensation” that would “keep the company competitive and make the company successful.” When I asked whether two-tier contract terms in Detroit were making it harder to win over workers in Chattanooga, he said the union was “philosophically and value-wise” opposed to them, but had accepted them on “occasions when the health of the company and the viability and survival of the company is at stake.” And when I asked whether workers should be concerned that the works council sought by the VW and UAW would help lay the groundwork for future concessions, the first thing he said was, “Well, workers should always be concerned about the health of their company.” (The UAW said King was not available for a follow-up interview this week.)

The UAW has identified unionizing “transplant” factories like the Chattanooga facility as a necessary step toward undoing its “two-tier” Detroit compromise and raising standards for workers there. But that same concession to Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, paired with the union’s pledge not to make it any harder for VW to outcompete them, gave powerful ammunition to UAW critics inside the plant.

Getting involved in a union, I learned back when I used to work for one, usually doesn’t flow from mere cold cost-benefit analysis (any more than does, say, the choice to come out of the closet). Rather, people take that risk when a mix of hope and anger outstrips their well-founded fear.

It’s hard to fully know from the outside how many real rank-and-file leaders the UAW cultivated at the Chattanooga plant, or how deep their relationships or effective their conversations with their co-workers were, or how well the campaign compensated for the UAW’s inability (under its agreement with VW) to drop in on workers at home. The UAW sought, as any union should, to take the threat of retaliation out of the equation. But with Republicans promising anti-union retribution, and a union promising deference to competitiveness, it looks like the union came up short in fighting fear, channeling anger and offering real hope.

Josh Eidelson

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