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Another crushing blow for the UAW

If the United Auto Workers Union was ever going to succeed at organizing a non-traditional plant in the South, the Volkswagen facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee should have been it.

The company stayed strictly neutral and did not try to block the union. UAW officials said they were open to creating a German-style council that would give workers a say in important plant decisions.

Yet the results were a crushing blow. When the vote was announced on Valentine’s Day, more than 53 percent of Chattanooga workers rejected the UAW. This is bound to raise questions about the union’s long-term survival.

The UAW has been in steep decline for a long time. Less than 40 years ago, the union Walter Reuther built reached a peak of more than a million and a half workers. Today, membership is less than 400,000, and a growing number of those have nothing to do with the car industry.

In recent years, the UAW has oddly succeeded in organizing such unlikely groups as post-doctoral scholars at the University of California and employees of the Sierra Club. But they have had no success at organizing a single one of the “transplants” – the Japanese, European and Korean auto factories that have sprung up, mostly in the South, over the last 30 years. Those factories now employ more than 50,000 workers.

When Bob King was elected the UAW’s tenth president four years ago, he promised to make organizing the transplants a priority. In fact, he’s said that unless his union does succeed in organizing these plants, it has no future. He vowed to bring the union into at least one transplant before he left office.

But Bob King has failed, at least in a personal sense. He will leave office this summer, without having organized a single foreign-owned plant, or having done anything to roll back the hated two-tier wage rate the union accepted seven years ago, just before the industry went through its near-death experience.

Not everybody thinks the situation is completely dire. Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California who specializes on labor issues, insists that Chattanooga was “more setback than rout.” Yesterday, he told me “this is a disappointment, I won’t deny that. But it doesn’t mean the end or the death of the UAW.”

Shaiken noted that while Volkswagen stayed neutral, the “the entire Republican party of the state made defeating the union a top priority.” That was certainly true of the governor and especially Bob Corker, the Tennessee senator who was a vocal opponent of the bailouts that saved General Motors and Chrysler five years ago.

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, paid for lurid billboards that showed scenes of devastation with the slogan “Detroit: Brought to You by the UAW.” 

Shaiken thinks the union will redouble its organizing efforts, and try another vote in a year. He may be right. But it is also clear that the UAW didn’t succeed in selling Chattanooga workers on the union. Workers there are among the best paid in Tennessee. Some feared that if the plant was organized, Volkswagen might leave the state.

In the end, unless the UAW can convince transplant workers that it can improve their lives, the union really will be doomed.