Union Position Weakens After UAW Surrenders in Tennessee

Business chiefs who don’t like Big Labor interference or the threat of union representation at their facilities will be happy with the news that United Auto Workers has given up on its goal of unionizing the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. and is leaving town.

May 5 2014 by Dale Buss

The union called it quits just as the National Labor Relations Board was about to start a hearing in Chattanooga over the UAW’s attempt to force a new unionization vote at the plant. The UAW had accused Tennessee politicians of illegally spoiling the atmosphere for the ballot at the factory. The union lost the first vote in February, even with VW’s tacit backing. And now it looks like union sympathizers in the plant are on their own indefinitely.

UAW President Bob King tried to put the best face on turning tail by noting that the union-initiated appeal of the vote could have dragged on “for months or even years.” King also wanly mentioned something about how the UAW instead now plans to “focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga,” basically meaning that the union no longer will stand in the way of new investments in the site that VW reportedly was planning anyway.

The good news for CEOs and business owners who don’t like unions in their plants: The stand-down is yet another indicator that the Mid-South and South remain solidly anti-union territories for manufacturers.

Tennessee’s economic-development prospects stood to take a big hit if the UAW’s efforts succeeded at Volkswagen. That’s why a range of the state’s politicians reminded the German automaker and its employees—and, by extension, other employers—that allowing the union into the Chattanooga facility not only would be a rebuke of the arrangement that brought Volkswagen to Tennessee, a “yes” vote also might endanger $300 million in future state incentives for the new SUV the company likely wants to build, next to the plant where it now assembles the Passat sedan.

Now, also, automakers from South Carolina to Mississippi can regard the UAW as an even lesser threat than before. If the UAW can’t win a representation election with a willing employer with the help of a highly interventionist Democratic administration in Washington, and after highlighting its crucial importance for the very future of the union, organized labor likely is finished as a significant threat to the still-expanding auto industry in the South.

Another fact underscores the tremendous weakness signaled here by the UAW: It typically does not give up easily even on difficult organizing drives, nor on long struggles of any sort. Witness its determined efforts to organize white-collar workers at Cornell University in the early 1980s and its six-year contract struggle at Caterpillar in the 1990s. In fact, “struggle” is a big part of the glue that typically keeps unions together.

Clearly, as they make facility-siting decisions in the coming months, manufacturing CEOs and business owners will consider the UAW’s abruptly raised white flag along with other developments that further have undermined industrial unions. These other developments include the surprising consolidation of a new “right-to-work” belt in the nation’s mid-section, comprised of Indiana and Michigan, with future possibilities including Wisconsin and Ohio.

Additional reading:

UAW Withdraws Objections on Volkswagen Vote

U.A.W. Drops Appeal of VW Vote in Tennessee

Union Drive Doesn’t Bother Management, but G.O.P. Fumes