How was the UAW defeated at Volkswagen in Tennessee?

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.

GOP influence

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.


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24 thoughts on “How was the UAW defeated at Volkswagen in Tennessee?

  1. Guv. Bill Haslem is a moderate Republican who did a lot of great things for Knoxville as Mayor, installing a modern Business Processing System, enabling lowering cost by reducing City regulations offices from 34 to 18 with much better control and public responsiveness. Could he have done this running as a Democrat?

    Corker, on the other hand, has been hand and foot following Republican ALEC obstructionism since his move up to Fed. Senate from Chattanooga legislation. The problem is that Tennessee has developed a culture of “right-to-work” in the State. “Right-to-work” has been in existence in Tennessee for over sixty years despite the Federally funded Tennesee Valley Authority.

    The national unions have allowed the “right-to-work” propaganda to penetrate the culture nationally–not just in states like Tennessee. How? By not meeting the RTW propaganda with programs for union workers over and above wage debates and strikes.

    Any business owner knows that at least 5% of gross income needs to go back into marketing and advertising. Union bosses have instead used that money for attacking employers and unsympathetic politicians, in order to increase their own power within the union.

    Instead they should have been reinvesting by offering training, education or better health plans unrelated to demands from employers; then, making such conditions known to future employers and the general public. Any farm boy knows you catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar. But we have that RTW culture fully embedded, even in Wisconsin now, and the road back is really tough.

  2. I pay my union dues even though I no longer have a union. This is in part because my AFSCME rep noted that unions are working on new strategies, ideas that will offer protections outside of the classic union shop.
    So far, unfortunately, my dues don’t seem to be translating into any new offerings for people like me. Mostly I receive the newsletter, and credit card offers.
    So, while I appreciate my union ‘membership’ and know I can call them with questions, I don’t see any of the Big Ideas that were described.
    In this environment, really outside-the-box thinking is required and I’m not seeing that.

    1. Sue-I absolutely AGREE with your assessment. I am a local union leader, 100% union to the core. I work hard to represent my members, but I, too, am getting pretty darn sick of the total LACK OF LEADERSHIP from our state and national unions. In many unions, the state and national officers have absolutely NO vision, or leadership initiatives. Here at the local level, I know what my members need, but it has to be more than just our local doing it; it has to be a statewide initiative. Yet, our state leaders don’t even want to hear suggestions from us peons at the local level. Just keep sending your dues checks; and btw, go out and recruit more members…..

      I think that eventually unions in Wisconsin will come back as strong as before, but only after the members & local unions do some much needed housecleaning with the state and national “leaders”. The conditions we face on a daily basis here in Walker’s Wisconsin wouldn’t be as bad if we had some decent leadership & sense of direction with our state and national leadership.

  3. It would be interesting to see the fate of Labor Unions in a country where the Democrats fought as hard to promote their interests and Republicans do to undermine them.
    As for AFSCME, I understand Sue’s feelings, but the best unions are run by the members. Get involved and put your big ideas front and center.

    1. Paul, I understand what you’re saying but I disagree somewhat. My rep explained the need for union dues from members who have lost their unions – we would have access to the same people union members do, people who couldn’t represent us but whose expertise could be of value. That’s kind of my point. I don’t have big ideas, I don’t have that talent, and I thought the idea of a form of crowdfunding of labor expertise was a good idea.
      I don’t see any change in focus. Just the same newsletter articles and offers.
      And Justin, good on ya. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

      1. Sue, I can’t make promises, but I do think change is coming to Labor in Wisconsin. Like Justin, I am a Local leader and I agree we need more from our leadership on many levels all the way up to DC. The difference is I think WE need to start that process, we are the ones who can force that change if we are organized and passionate about it. We do elect our own leaders and we are the ones responsible for cleaning up the house. I do understand the frustration, I’ve felt it myself because at times I get the “local peon” reception and shocked looks when I dare question the status quo but the change has to start with us.

  4. The truth of the matter is that southern people saw their money/ dues going to fund eternal crony Democrat while collar criminals and Union thugs

    They saw what Union did to Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, Gary, St. Louis and all across the rust belt to see decaying homes, schools falling apart, no jobs, and no tax base. Fat ass criminal Union thugs and their crony Democrat political criminals skimming dues for decades, living off the workers backs and continued to throw 100% of the political contributions to those same Democrat criminals – while paying some high school schmuck $75,000-$100,000 a year to do essentially nothing and paying 100% of their healthcare until the merry go pyramid scheme ends and the businesses leave the community leaving the existing citizens holding the bag.

    So congrats Chattanooga….you saw these creepy Union schemes and denied the pigs from filling their trough, destroying your community and ensuring the financial health of your company.

    1. Gee Allen, if I had THAT much HATRED for unions boiling around inside me as you have, I would have had a heart attack a long time ago. You need to calm down, take a breath, and celebrate life as being good for yourself, not judging the quality of YOUR life by the level at which you can attack or demean others.

    2. I for one appreciate the naked honesty of your position, Allen. You just don’t believe auto workers deserve to be paid well because they are “high school schmucks” who “do essentially nothing”. At what educational level and with what job type should an individual make enough money to live comfortably and support a family? MD? Master’s? Ph.D.? Portfolio Manager? Neurologist? Hospital Administrator? Please help us understand where the line should be drawn between the deserving of a decent salary and the undeserving.

    3. Allen, since I lost my union, nothing has changed in my workplace. No housecleaning, the people who worked the system continue to do so.
      I thought that was a little odd.
      Oh, and I come from a union family in Chicago. Not exactly rust belt. My brothers have made a good living and are accepted and respected. There are still places in the US where union members are valued partners.

  5. Governor Haslam is a typical conservative – tax cuts and subsidies to lure business (btw, it looks like he’s successfully wooed a company with a NE WI presence to consolidate in TN which probably doesn’t bode well for WI workers), requesting exemption from No Child Left Behind initiatives when his state is ranked 42nd in education, pro-life, anti-marriage equality, pro-NRA, refused to veto a bill allowing creationism, and signed a bill that ended practical sex education. Perhaps he has national ambitions too just like another union-busting governor we know. He certainly has checked all the important right wing boxes. This fight had nothing much to do with what the unions have to offer, whether they have to reform, or what any remaining Democrats in that state said or didn’t say. Haslam, Corker, and their supporters feared the specter of wage increases when they’ve sold their state as a low-wage haven.

    1. EmmaR, Gov. Haslem is a pluralist, who travels the state and talks to people not just CEOs and the well to do as the WisGuv tends to do. I’m not enamoured of the Tennessee Governor, but I did witness his campaign while I lived in Tennessee, and was very familiar with his management style in Knoxville. He had no big corporate backing in his run for Governor, but appealed to Tennesseans on his record as Mayor, as his predecessor the two term Democratic Governor, Phil Bredesen had done. So his vote on creationism in the state of the famous Scopes trial was a way of representing his constituency on a subjective matter. Something any relatively intelligent politician needs to do.

      You’re right that Tennessee’s educational status cannot compare with Wisconsin’s, nor can their labor pool. So it’s a matter of great consternation to me that Walker is moving Wisconsin toward Tennessee’s weaknesses. But, in looking at the man not the party, Haslem has worked to help Tennessee whereas Walker is destroying Wisconsin to help himself.

      1. No intelligent politician by definition would allow creationism to be taught in the schools. What’s a pluralist politician? His own web site defines his platform as conservative. Traveling the state to talk to people doesn’t define a politician – their votes do. Look at his record as guv.

        1. EmmaR,
          Pluralism as a political philosophy is the belief that many of our deepest moral values (liberty, equality, the minimization of pain or cruelty, dignity, etc.) are incommensurate, and balancing them as best as possible should therefore govern one’s political philosophy. Political pluralists are not inherently liberals (who place liberty and/or equality as their guiding principles) or conservatives (who place order and/or tradition as their guiding principles) but advocate a form of political moderation.

          I don’t have time to repeat what I said in my previous post on this topic. And I ask that you look up your own definitions and not infer inaccuracies that scandalize public servants-even Republican ones.

          1. My question about pluralism was rhetorical of course. It’s the votes and actions of politicians that define them. You’re defending the indefensible. Why? Was it you who encouraged Vinehout to write her ridiculous editorial praising Haslam and now you have to do damage-control?

            1. EmmaR,
              Kathleen Vinehout is a personal friend and sometimes asks me what I want to see happen, but she is too polite to solicit my advice, because she knows I’m a professional marketer and I should charge her for it, and even if she did, she would make up her own mind.

              Bill Haslem is not a personal friend. But a family member helped him put in the new BPS from Oracle when he was mayor of knoxville. I was privileged to his management style and campaign style after he was recruited to run for governor. Haslem being a graduate of UT, I was not surprised when he used a similar approach as Lamar Alexander to first campaign across the state, having the extra benefit of facebook.

              No damage to control. I have nothing of my own to protect here. Just interested in seeing the extraordinary history of this state regenerated. And trying not to give up in exasperation as PJ did.

              1. A good start to seeing the history of our state regenerated may be to not pattern it after politicians who are unable to stand up for science and have nothing to offer their poorly educated populace but a low wage, tax-subsidized haven. Management style means nothing when the outcome is so poor.

                1. In Tennessee–which has been on the cusp of bankruptcy due to no income tax and a 9.5% sales tax plus Badger-like TennCare out of control–where citizens have assaulted the State Capitol in Nashville–Haslem brought peace and a way forward.

                  As stated previously, a 60+ year culture of Right-to-work which has lost the state– especially Memphis and Shelby County–National manufacturing Corporations due to a lack of qualified labor.

                  Haslem has helped ease labor concerns, which reappeared in Nashville with Saturn, because of his rapport with the people of the mid and eastern parts of the state. If he had not been voting in accord with the 60 year old culture of that area, he could not have gained that rapport. That’s politics, EmmaR.

    2. Arne Duncan and BHO’s NCLB was the beginning of “Democratic,” push against public schools as a means to discredit some on unfair standards of, “low performance,” and as their excuse for then pushing privatizing of public education. It morphed a bit with race to the top, which meant that there would still be losers deserving of dissolution or conversion to private control of public education dollars and breaking of public school teacher unions.

      Though Haslam’s likely motivations were despicable (local control to continue with right wing-nut curriculum), the NCLB and Duncan’s appointment as education secretary were every bit as much corporate, capitalist cronyism as Walker’s DNR Secretary or the formation of WEDC.

      No War But Class War

      1. Duncan had nothing to do with NCLB, that was Bush’s baby. Arne Duncan is a magna cum laudae Harvard graduate. With a commendable record of public service. How about you?

        1. Duncan, no matter what his “educational credentials,” has acted in his position as SOE to the extreme detriment of public education in this country. When does being a Harvard grad excuse someone from being a tool of for profit corporate, “education.”

          Diplomas from Columbia University and Harvard Law School apparently don’t preclude one from being a murderer, it seems.

          Your attempt to discredit me on an issue of my public service has absolutely nothing to do with Arne Duncan. In my response to EmmaR’s NCLB reference, I stated it morphed into RTTT.

          Duncan at the behest of, and in consultation with BHO, results in:

          My references to schools here and the OP topic of Unions, was a concerted effort on the part of these two clowns to weaken public teacher unions as a key factor in public education, “reform.”

          1. Race To the Top, RTTT, was essentially a stimulus program, unlike No Child Left Behind, NCLB, which was a state mandate with a lot of talk and little Fed help. Again, The President, with no help from Congress, was doing all he could to get the economy going. If educational standards went up, that would be a plus. If teachers were challenged to do better and did, that was a plus. The criticism about poverty and environmental conditions definitely shouldn’t be put on the president and his staff, as they have been met with nothing but obstructionism in attempts to alleviate poverty and joblessness.

          2. Race To the Top, RTTT, was essentially a stimulus program, unlike No Child Left Behind, NCLB, which was a state mandate with a lot of talk and little Fed help. Again, The President, with no help from Congress, was doing all he could to get the economy going. If educational standards went up, that would be a plus. If teachers were challenged to do better and did, that was a plus. The criticism about poverty and environmental conditions definitely shouldn’t be put on the president and his staff, as they have been met with nothing but obstructionism in attempts to alleviate poverty and joblessness.

          3. Your attempt to discredit me on an issue of my public service has absolutely nothing to do with Arne Duncan. In my response to EmmaR’s NCLB reference, I stated it morphed into RTTT

            I just asked a question. Instead of an answer we get more slanderous wind. Too bad.

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