By BILL ONASCH
In a stunning setback for labor, workers at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted 712 to 626 this month to reject affiliation with the United Auto Workers.
It was supposed to be a lead pipe cinch. United Auto Workers President Bob King, with the backing of fellow union bureaucrats in Germany, convinced Volkswagen America that it would be in their interest to have a German-style works council in their Chattanooga plant.
A works council requires a union. Today’s UAW is not the same union VW dealt with when they built Rabbits in Pennsylvania 35 years ago. No more confrontation, King’s UAW is all about the shared interests of partnership.
VW couldn’t simply designate the UAW as the union participant in the new council. Since the Obama administration never delivered on their 2008 card-check pledge, the union needed to be certified as a bargaining agent through an NLRB election. In preparation for this process the company and union negotiated a Neutrality Agreement that granted the UAW access to VW workers while management refrained from th anti-union captive audience meetings that have become the norm in representation elections. VW issued a public neutrality declaration as well and asked outside third parties to mind their own business.
The Agreement also contained commitments from the union about bargaining for a contract if they won Labor Board certification—which I’ll come back to.
This was as good a scenario as union organizers could hope for, and they quickly signed up a majority of VW workers. Most experts expected the union would win and started speculating about the prospects of the UAW’s organizing Mercedes and BMW plants in the South along the same lines.
But, as should have been anticipated, there were powerful outside third parties who considered the encroachment of even meek unionism in the Volunteer State to be their business. Prominent Republican office holders, assisted by a billboard campaign furnished by Carl Rove, warned that the UAW would bankrupt Chattanooga just as they had Detroit. Convincing threats of denying future government incentives for expansion to a unionized VW plant also had a chilling effect. Undoubtedly, some votes were swayed by this last-minute fear mongering.
But that alone wasn’t what sunk the UAW boat. In my opinion, the union bureaucracy had sewn their own seeds of failure. Historically, workers seek unions to better their wages, benefits, and working conditions. The UAW for decades was the pace setter for what came to be called middle-class jobs—but those days are long gone. Especially since the historic 2007 Big Three contract surrender—later enhanced by bankruptcy terms imposed by President Obama at General Motors and Chrysler—Solidarity House has focused on just the opposite.
Through big concessions, the UAW has succeeded in making their core employers competitive with transplant rivals. But the flip side of these give-backs is that the workers in the transplants now get wages and benefits competitive with UAW workers—in fact, sometimes better.
One of the conditions of the Neutrality Agreement committed the UAW to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages,” that the company “enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America, including but not limited to legacy automobile manufacturers.” Legacy refers to the UAW-organized Big Three.
This commitment to the company to make competitive advantage supreme law was made by King without any consultation with VW workers. It is little different than the sweetheart deals former SEIU President Andy Stern used to cook up with CEOs. It became the main issue of the in-plant “vote no” forces and had more impact on votes than any politicians’ threats.
The inconvenient truth is that the UAW, under its present mis-leadership’s helping the boss to hold down labor costs, has little to offer to the unorganized. I’m frankly surprised there were so many votes for the union (626 for, 712 against, 89 percent voting). The only hopeful sign in this disaster is that so many had the foresight to recognize that a bad union that can be changed for the good is better than no union at all.
This humiliating defeat in Chattanooga is a fresh confirmation that give-backs to the boss not only fail to maintain existing jobs; they can also doom efforts to organize what is now an unorganized majority in a once virtually all-union industry.
Photo: UAW President Bob King — By Carlos Osorio / AP