At Volkswagen, UAW Loses Unionization Vote. So, Who Wins?

February 17, 2014

The United Automobile Workers spent the past couple of years doing everything in its power to unionize workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but when all the votes were counted, the New York Times reports that the 626 employees who wanted to join the union were outnumbered by 712 of their co-workers.

The loss wasn't entirely unexpected. Unions in general have lost much of the power and clout they once held in the U.S. The location of the VW plant didn't help, either: historically speaking, the American South hasn't been union-friendly territory. [Insert your own Confederate joke here.]

So, we know that the UAW lost at the ballot box, but who won? 

Anti-union conservatives: Conservative lawmakers typically loathe unions, and many throughout Tennessee worked tirelessly to convince Volkswagen employees that unionization would be a bad idea. According to Detroit News, workers may have been told that future jobs and VW's expansion would be curtailed if they voted in favor of unionization. The UAW is exploring its legal options (the organization calls some of its opponents' tactics "outrageous"), and the war between the two sides is far from over, but there's no question that this battle went to the conservative side.

Volkswagen: Unlike some other automakers (e.g. Nissan), Volkswagen didn't oppose unionization. As a European corporation, it's very, very familiar with the way that unions work and how, when properly implemented, they can improve efficiency. In fact, some anti-union employees complained last fall that VW was pressuring them to unionize.

Now that the dust has settled, VW can say, essentially, "We would've been happy to have a union at our plant in Tennessee, but as a group, our valued employees opted not to follow that path. Now, back to work!"

Tennessee (maybe): Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) says he was informed that if VW workers in Chattanooga rejected unionization, the company would build its new, "Hail Mary" SUV in the state. On the record, Volkswagen has said nothing of the kind, but would it be that surprising?

Unions: When unions first arose in the U.S., they did important work. They forced white-collar management to listen to blue-collar workers. They forced workers to function as a team, to speak with one voice. They made huge gains, ensuring that plant employees worked in safe environments and received fair compensation for their time. Over the past few decades, though, unions have slacked off. To the general public, they can be seen as lazy -- as if they feel they're entitled to things but don't want to work to earn them.

In the best of all possible worlds, the relationship between union and management is a partnership -- a sometimes contentious one, but a partnership nonetheless. Today, the relationship between the UAW and automakers is frequently adversarial. That doesn't just annoy management and the public, it's also a turn-off for many would-be union members. 

In short, the loss at Volkswagen is a wake-up call to the UAW: adapt or die.


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