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Labor loses big in Tennessee

The United Auto Workers narrowly lost a bid to unionize a Tenn. Volkswagen plant, even though the company never contested the election.
Passat sedans come off the assembly line at the Volkswagen automobile assembly plant, Feb. 21, 2012 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Passat sedans come off the assembly line at the Volkswagen automobile assembly plant, Feb. 21, 2012 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Organized labor suffered a major defeat on Friday night in Tennessee, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) narrowly lost a vote to unionize the Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Chattanooga. Workers voted 712-626 against forming a union, ending months of bitter campaigning on the part of both the UAW and its conservative opponents.

Those opponents did not include Volkswagen, which announced early on that it would not challenge the UAW's organizing drive. Instead, the German auto-maker welcomed cooperation with the union in hopes that they could form a cooperative "works council" modelled after the labor-management governing structures found in much of Germany's private sector. For its part, the UAW was hoping to extend its influence in the historically anti-union South, now that organized labor's strength has significantly waned in traditional Rust Belt strongholds like Michigan.

But despite Volkswagen's assent, the UAW faced unexpectedly strong opposition from the state Republican Party and conservative special interest groups.

"This seems pretty unique to me," said labor historian Erik Loomis, of the right's attempts to ward off unionization. "Certainly local and state politicians have involved themselves in campaigns to defeat unions in the past, but I've never heard of a company agreeing up front to a union and politicians then organizing to defeat it with no corporate help."

Opponents of the organizing drive suggested that UAW was partially responsible for Detroit's bankruptcy. The Center for Worker Freedom, a project of Americans for Tax Reform, purchased a billboard in Chattanooga that said, "DETROIT: Brought to you by UAW." The Center did not respond to a request for comment.

"Nobody would wish what's happened in Detroit on any community," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told the Washington Post earlier this week. "It's just cratered. There's no question that the UAW has had a negative impact on the big three automakers."

In the weeks before the vote, Corker became one of the most outspoken opponents of the unionization drive. He insisted he was not opposed to unions on principle. Instead, his problem was with the UAW; in the same Washington Post interview, he said that he had no problem with Volkswagen creating its own union to help run the plan. (Company-sponsored unions have been illegal in the United States for nearly 80 years.)

National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation vice president Patrick Semmens confirmed in an email that his organization had "provided free legal assistance" to workers who opposed unionization. He also accused UAW of using under-handed tactics to crush opposition.

"Frankly, I don't think we would have seen so many non-employees weighing in if VW hadn't cut a deal with the UAW to limit dissenting workers' ability to make their case," he said.

Semmens pointed to local news coverage in which anti-union workers claimed they were prevented from asking questions during UAW informational sessions. Semmens also objected to an agreement between Volkswagen and UAW which outlined the shape of their power-sharing arrangement before any vote even took place.

That criticism, at least, was echoed by some pro-union voices. Labor journalist Mike Elk said on Twitter that UAW's efforts to restrict press access were "problematic from a union democracy standpoint." He also suggested that the union as a whole was insufficiently grassroots-oriented and democratic.

The Volkswagon results represent "an enormous defeat for the UAW," according to Loomis.

"I don't see how the UAW recovers from this in the southern plants," he said. "The failures to organize the auto plants in Kentucky and Tennessee in the '90s were pretty devastating, but this might be even more so because it demonstrates fairly strongly that workers simply aren't going to join the UAW under even the most favorable organizing circumstances. And I absolutely think Republican state politicians will see this as a precedent."