Close Call in Chattanooga Means UAW Likely to Stay Course, Experts Say

“They're very persistent,” CAR analyst Sean McAlinden says of the union, even in areas such as the South where it is viewed with suspicion.

Joseph Szczesny

February 25, 2014

5 Min Read
UAW in midst of 2year drive to organize Nissanrsquos Canton MS plant
UAW in midst of 2-year drive to organize Nissan’s Canton, MS, plant.

The UAW’s decision to appeal its narrow defeat in the representation election at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, TN, assembly plant appears to come as no surprise to industry analysts.

“They were just too close to walk away,” says Harley Shaiken, professor-labor relations for the University of California at Berkeley, who notes the 712-626 defeat left the union less than 45 votes shy of its long-cherished goal of organizing workers at a Southern assembly plant operated by a European or Asian automaker.

Without the appeal, the union faced the National Labor Relations Board's statutory waiting period of one year before making another bid to organize the VW workers.

But what Shaiken calls “unprecedented” political opposition during the vote, in which state officials hinted a union victory would jeopardize future public funding in support of the plant, has the UAW believing there are grounds to overturn the results.

“The UAW also has a very strong pro-union group in the plant,” Shaiken adds, and even if the appeal is denied by the NLRB, the UAW can ask for another election in a year.

UAW President Bob King, who is scheduled to step aside in June, says it’s an “outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that that would grow jobs in Tennessee.

“It is extraordinary interference in the private decision of workers to have a U.S. senator, a governor and leaders of the state legislature threaten the company with the denial of economic incentives and workers with a loss of product,” King adds. “We’re committed to standing with the Volkswagen workers to ensure that their right to have a fair vote without coercion and interference is protected.”

But U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, says the UAW’s reaction is just so much sour grapes.

“Labor laws are written to allow employees to decide whether they want a union, not to ensure that unions win,” he says in a statement. “For 30 years, tens of thousands of new auto jobs have raised Tennessee family incomes and our workers have decided in almost every case that they are better off union-free.

“The UAW may not like this, but that is the right of employees in a right-to-work state like Tennessee.”

Sean McAlinden, vice president-research at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI, also is not surprised by the UAW’s decision to file a complaint with the NLRB.

“They're very persistent,” McAlinden notes, even in areas such as the South where the union is viewed with suspicion.

Lance Compa, an attorney, expert in labor law and corporate fairness and senior lecturer at Cornell University, says the defeat doesn’t mark the beginning of the end for the union.

“The election in Chattanooga is a setback for the UAW and the labor movement, but it’s not Armageddon,” he says. “The fact that a near-majority of workers voted for the union in the face of coercive threats from the entire Tennessee political power structure shows the UAW has a solid base in the plant to come back for another election in the future.”

Compa says persistence can pay dividends.

“I’m reminded of the 2008 NLRB election at the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, NC, where 5,000 workers voted 53%-47% – the same percentage split as in Chattanooga – in favor of the United Food and Commercial Workers after the union had lost two earlier elections.

“What happened in the VW election is a chapter. It’s not the end of the story.”

Over the years, the UAW has stuck by groups of pro-union workers in non-union auto plants in the South, King notes.

“The notion that Southern workers do not want a union is false,” he says. “Forming a union in the U.S. requires enormous courage and the determination.”

While the UAW initially appeared to have the correct formula in Chattanooga, where Volkswagen of America's senior management declared its neutrality and the VW Works Council, the voice of VW workers around the world and the German metalworkers union, had endorsed a vote for the UAW, that cozy relationship with the automaker may have backfired with some workers, McAlinden says.

The neutrality agreement appeared to stress the UAW's commitment to VW's overall competitiveness, rather than improving the wages and benefits for the employees at the Chattanooga plant, a formulation cited by some workers as grounds for rejecting the union, McAlinden points out.

Meanwhile, VW, which has remained silent on the UAW appeal, says it is prepared to move forward on establishing a Works Council at the plant, despite the direction of the vote. But concerns remain that under U.S. law a Works Council cannot be established without union representation.

“The German unions want to see those plants unionized,” says John Russo, a researcher at Virginia Tech who has lectured in Germany and believes there are legal hurdles to setting up a Works Council in the U.S. “They think it is important to their future.

“They don’t want labor relations in Germany to follow an American model,” he adds. “They want the German model.”

Shaiken believes it is unlikely either the German union or the UAW will change its overall organization strategy after coming so close at Volkswagen.

He expects the UAW’s ongoing campaign to continue at Nissan’s plant in Canton, MS, where it has mounted another significant effort over the past two years. There, the UAW is employing some of the same tactics used against it in Chattanooga, including pro-union billboards and pro-union statements from political figures and community groups.

Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, the UAW’s likely successor to King when elections are held in May, endorsed the current strategy when it was unveiled in 2011, and the union's executive board and ruling political caucus already has come out in support of increasing membership dues to support the organization drives. Union members now pay two hours of wages per month in dues, and the increase would take another half-hour's wage.

“You can’t have a middle class here in the U.S. or around the world without organized labor,” Williams told a UAW conference in March 2011.

He also has endorsed King's strategy of enhancing the UAW's relationships with unions in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere.

“These campaigns are expensive,” King told reporters recently, citing the need to raise dues to finance the activity and rebuild a strike fund that has shrunk from $1 billion to about $650 million over the past decade.

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