On the heels of the UAW’s narrow defeat in their attempt to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, Mike Elk has some thoughts on how the UAW was defeated.
Volkswagen signed a 22-page neutrality agreement pledging not to interfere in the union election at the Chattanooga plant. The company even let the union onto the shop floor in early February to give a presentation on the merits of organizing.
It is impossible to say why each of those 712 workers voted against the union and what the UAW could have done differently to win them over one by one. However, In These Times’ interviews with both pro-union and anti-union workers—as well as low-level Volkswagen supervisors, top UAW officials and community activists—point to a confluence of factors, including outside interference by GOP politicians and unsanctioned anti-union activity by low-level supervisors. Some questioned, too, whether missteps by the UAW and concerns about its prior bargaining agreements played a role.
The UAW was quick to blame the loss on public anti-union threats by right-wing politicians. Immediately following the election results, UAW President Bob King informed reporters, “We are obviously deeply disappointed. We’re also outraged by the outside interference in this election. Never before in this country have we seen a U.S. senator, a governor and a leader of the Legislature threaten the company with incentives and threaten workers with a loss of product. That’s outrageous.”
Last week, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam told the Tennessean, “I think that there are some ramifications to the vote in terms of our ability to attract other suppliers. When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time.”
On Monday, two days before the election began, Republican State Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson and Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick suggested that Volkswagen might not receive future state subsidies if the plant unionized.
Then on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)—the former mayor of Chattanooga—who had pledged the previous week not to comment publicly about the ongoing election, waded back into the debate to declare, “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.”
When Volkswagen Chattanooga Chairman and CEO Frank Fischer refuted Corker, saying the union election would have no effect on the SUV decision, Corker doubled down. “Believe me, the decisions regarding the Volkswagen expansion are not being made by anyone in management at the Chattanooga plant, and we are also very aware Frank Fischer is having to use old talking points when he responds to press inquiries,” Corker said in a statement on Thursday. “After all these years and my involvement with Volkswagen, I would not have made the statement I made yesterday without being confident it was true and factual.”
While the result of the UAW vote in Tennessee is certainly a setback, I’d be willing to bet we’ll see many more efforts on the part of the UAW and other unions to organize workers across the country, and hopefully those efforts will be more successful – if unions can continue to educate workers on the benefits of standing together to fight for better wages and benefits.