The United Auto Workers has thrown in the towel -- in Tennessee, at least. According to Reuters, the union has backed away from its high-profile attempt to overturn a recent vote against unionization at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, and many are wondering what this means for the future of the labor organization.
In February, employees at the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant voted against unionization. This was a very big deal.
For years, the UAW had been trying to persuade those workers to unionize. Heck, even some folks at VW were making the union pitch. But in the end, workers voted 712-626 against allowing the UAW to represent them in labor discussions.
Folks on the right cheered. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), for example, said that the vote cleared the way for VW to expand operations in Chattanooga, or perhaps even build a second plant in the state. And in broader terms, conservatives saw the defeat as a huge setback to UAW growth -- proof that the union wasn't going to make inroads in the American South, and a hint that the UAW might be on its last legs.
Folks on the left cried foul. Some accused Corker and his cronies of playing unfair and using scare tactics to sway the vote. Others vowed vengeance against the state of Tennessee. And the UAW promised to do everything in its power to overturn the vote.
Yesterday, the UAW was preparing to go before the National Labor Relations Board to appeal the vote, when suddenly, the union backed out. How suddenly? About an hour before the hearing was set to begin -- so late that many who'd been asked to testify were already at the courthouse in Chattanooga.
The drama seems to stem from a lack of communication, because according to UAW rep Gary Casteel, the union decided not to pursue the case last week. In a prepared statement, the UAW explained its rationale for bailing on the appeal:
UAW President Bob King said the decision was made in the best interests of Volkswagen employees, the automaker, and economic development in Chattanooga. King said the UAW based its decision on the belief that the NLRB’s historically dysfunctional and complex process potentially could drag on for months or even years. Additionally, the UAW cited refusals by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker to participate in a transparent legal discovery process, which undermines public trust and confidence....
King also said that outdated federal laws governing the NLRB never contemplated the level of extreme intimidation and interference that occurred in Chattanooga. Even if the NLRB ordered a new election — the board’s only available remedy under current law — nothing would stop politicians and anti-union organizations from again interfering.
Translation: "Challenging the election would've been a long, uphill battle, and even if we'd won, we'd have arrived back at Square One. We're going to cut our losses."
Though some might see the union's withdrawal as a loss, the UAW insists that it has achieved three major goals:
1. The hullabaloo has drawn attention to the political tactics of union opponents. According to King: "The UAW’s objections informed the public about the unprecedented interference by anti-labor politicians and third parties who want to prevent workers from exercising their democratic right to choose union representation."
2. Tennessee's governor now has no excuse not to offer VW the promised incentives: Casteel stated that "The UAW wants to help create quality jobs and build world-class products for American consumers. With this in mind, we urge Gov. Haslam to immediately extend the incentives that previously were offered to Volkswagen for this new SUV line, and do so unconditionally."
3. There are other ways of dealing with this matter. Said King: "Frankly, Congress is a more effective venue for publicly examining the now well-documented threat. We commend Congressmen George Miller and John Tierney for their leadership on this matter, and look forward to seeing the results of their inquiry."
Item #1 seems like a way of saving face, and item #3 feels like a longshot. Item #2, however, is valid and pretty crafty.
Given what the UAW has said about Volkswagen's Tennessee operations, it's unlikely that the union will re-open that can of worms (i.e. push for another unionization vote) within the next few years. Instead, it will likely campaign for union representation at other Southern plants, like the one Nissan operates in Canton, Mississippi, where it might face better odds. Stay tuned.