Despite everything but an engraved invitation to unionize from the company, the 1,550 hourly workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., rejected representation by the United Auto Workers labor union by a vote of 712 to 626 on Valentine’s Day.
Under pressure from existing “work councils” at VWs at most all of the company’s other 105 plants, the company was officially “neutral” on the union vote but clearly took formal contractual steps to coordinate with the UAW on both public statements and communications with plant employees.
Even so, workers rejected the UAW’s entreaties. The vote reinforced the UAW’s continuing woes in their rather naked attempt to infiltrate the foreign-owned automakers in “Detroit South.”
The union vote in Chattanooga represented the UAW’s first vote at a major foreign automaker’s assembly plant since the union’s failed attempt to gain the right to represent Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tenn., in 2001. The union lost that vote by a 2-to-1 margin.
In addition to VW in Chattanooga, the UAW also has been attempting to unionize workers at Nissan Motor Company plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and at a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama.
Why? Because the UAW fears that so-called “transplants” – or foreign-owned automakers with plants in the U.S. – will pull down wages and benefits at UAW-represented domestic auto plants in Detroit.
Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research, told the New York Times after the vote that the UAW’s leadership “has been very open that if they don’t organize the transplants, their future as a large automotive union is in jeopardy.” Foreign-owned automakers with plants in the U.S. and imports comprise a combined 55 percent of total U.S. auto sales.
UAW membership sharply declined since reaching a peak of nearly 1.5 million in 1979 to almost 400,000 in 2012, due to automation at auto plants and the large share of the U.S. auto market for U.S. automakers that has shifted to foreign auto manufacturers.
In the wake of their defeat in Chattanooga, the UAW focus will intensify at the Nissan plant in Canton. At the VW plant, the union’s supposed “ace in the hole” was the coordination with the company. But at Nissan, the union is hanging their political hat on the argument at the union push is in actuality a civil rights exercise.
But just as workers in Chattanooga told the press that they voted against UAW representation at the VW plant because of fears of negative impacts of the union on “old Detroit” automakers, Nissan workers in Mississippi are expected to weigh those same considerations.
For the UAW, the Chattanooga defeat makes their efforts in Southern “right to work” states even more daunting. The pushback against the UAW in Tennessee was anything but subtle. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Gov. Bill Haslam, members of the Tennessee Legislature and local leaders were unambiguous in their opposition to the union.
Despite cloaking the union push in Mississippi in the political vestments of the civil rights movement, union organizers should expect to encounter similar organized opposition in Mississippi at Nissan. Mississippi taxpayers are active partners in the state’s emerging auto manufacturing industry and most remain wary of an expanded union presence in one of the state’s real growth industries.
Frankly, if the UAW couldn’t win in Chattanooga – with the company’s “neutrality” in the vote evoking laughter – the prospects in Canton look decidedly dim for the union.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com or(601) 507-8004. He is the official spokesman for Mississippi State University.