Emotions are still raw following the unexpected defeat of the UAW's organizing effort by workers in Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant. Opponents of the well-funded, two-year UAW effort appeared resigned to losing the vote last week, but when the secret ballots were counted, workers rejected the union by a 712-626 vote. The defeat represents a huge setback for the UAW's efforts to organize auto workers in 14 plants operated by German and Japanese automakers across the South. Eight of the plants were built in the last 10 years and all are located below the Mason-Dixon line because of the availability of skilled workers, most of whom wanted no part of the UAW.
But nobody should assume the UAW will slink back to its Detroit headquarters and give up the fight. The reality is the union cannot afford to give up because its very survival is at stake. Once among the largest and most powerful industrial trade unions in the country with a membership of 1.5 million, the UAW now has only 383,000 affiliated workers. But those numbers barely begin to tell the story of the union's precarious situation. What used to be the Big Three in Detroit has been reduced to the Big Two. Chrysler is now owned by Fiat, and the future of General Motors, though far healthier now than it was in the 2009 bankruptcy, is by no means guaranteed. There are also more than half a million retirees whose benefits must be covered. So the UAW must break out of the Rust Belt and find new members and revenue.
The Tennessee VW plant remains the UAW's best target, so it is inconceivable that there won't be an appeal of last week's vote to the National Labor Relations Board. Union head Bob King said shortly after the vote that "it's never happened in this country before that the U.S. senator, the governor, the leader of the House, the legislature here, threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with a loss of product. We'll look at all our options in the next few days." King was referring mainly to Sen. Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor who actively and publicly opposed the union organizing campaign.
When the appeal goes to the NLRB, it will likely center on Corker’s role and comments from state officials suggesting a UAW win would jeopardize the $260 million worth of incentives that played a role in convincing VW to locate the plant in Chattanooga. The union will argue that such “outside influences” distorted the vote and should nullify the results until another round of balloting. Given the present makeup of the NLRB with a majority of union supporters, that argument might well succeed. And demanding a second vote may be a message to workers they really have no choice but to accept the union’s demands. But that’s the attitude that crippled the Big Three, whose example should provide a countervailing cautionary tale.