Marking a-sign-of-the-times, Tennessee’s Volkswagen auto assembly plant rejected a bid [712-626] to join the 79-year-old United Autoworkers Union that in its 1970s’ heyday boasted 1.5 million members. After Detroit’s near bankruptcy and restructuring in 2008, the UAW membership has dropped to 383,000. Emerging from the labor movement in the 1920s, where sweat shops and child labor abuses were rampant, the UAW protected a growing industry requiring workers’ protections. When Detroit restructured, ending the hard-fought collective bargaining battles that drove the U.S. auto industry near bankruptcy, the UAW made massive concessions to keep Detroit competitive. Today’s ongoing success of GM, Ford and Chrysler depends on affordable labor-and-benefits costs, making the U.S. auto industry once again competitive against foreign competition.
Tennessee’s VW plant workers were concerned if they voted in the UAW, the collective bargaining process would be taken out of workers’ hands and placed into the union’s. Judging by UAW history, tough negotiations and threats of strikes pressed management into making concessions, workers’ feared they’d price themselves again out the market. VW’s Tennessee plant employs 1,338 workers with the prospects of adding a new model to compliment its Passat passenger car. “While we’re outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering with the basic legal right of workers to form a union, we’re proud of these workers were brave and step up to the tremendous pressure form outside,” said UAW Secretary-Treasurer Williams. Workers at the VW plant in Tennessee weren’t intimidated by “outside” forces, they were fearful of losing their jobs because of unionization.
In the old days of unionization, it was a feudal war between management and labor. Henry Ford opposed unionization because he believed its would make his company less profitable with his competitors, eventually driving unit-labor costs so high it sent the industry into a death spiral, facing bankruptcy in 2008. No matter how the UAW wants to spin it at VW’s Chattanooga plant, rejection says more about workers’ lack of faith in the UAW than outside influence. Workers realized that VW management showed respect for workers’ rights, including the right to unionize and collectively bargain. Because VW’s management “seemed neutral to positive” about unionization, it’s double-blow to the UAW. Calling it a “serious setback” for the UAW, Kelley Blue Book’s executive editorial director Jack Nerad saw the rejection as bad news for the UAW’s future.
UAW officials won’t admit they participated in their own demise by taking an adversarial approach to management. Whatever abuses existed before unionization, successive CBAs eventually did the U.S. auto industry in by driving unit labor costs through the roof. “The UAW’s attempts to organize other non-union plants in the United States are very unlikely to be greeted with much cooperation from other manufacturers, this could mark the end to UAW hope to gain traction in these non-union Southern state plants, “ said Nerad. UAW President Bob King blamed politicians, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for intimidating employees. “What I hope the American public understands is that those people who attack this were attacking labor-management cooperation,” said King, missing the point that workers at the Tennessee plant actually have a good relationship with VW management.
Other foreign manufacturers on U.S. soil, including Japan’s Toyota, Honda and and Nissan, South Korea’s Hundai and Kia, Germany’s Mercedez Benz and BMW, all resisted UAW involvement precisely because workers’ feared for job security. Germany’s VW encourages workers to form a “Works Council” to handle, like German autoworkers, worker-related issues. “Our employees have not made a decision that they are against the “Works Council,” said Chattanooga VW President Frank Fischer. Fischer expressed openness to the Chattanooga plant joining VW’s “Global Works Council” to advance workers’ rights. With prospects for expanding VW’s Chattanooga’s good, workers thought it was too risky to join the UAW. “There are still some issues that have to be sorted out about this election,” said UAW autoworkers leader Gary Casteel, touting the UAW’s relationship to VW.
Dropping to 11.3% of all U.S. workers, unionization may have been an idea whose time has come-and-gone. No longer battling management for health care, disability or retirement benefits like they did in the 1920s or 1930s, most foreign manufacturers doing business in the U.S. pay relatively comparable benefits to their union counterparts. Pleased with the Chattanooga VW plant’s results, autoworker Chuck Luttrell expressed relief over the vote. “Now we go back to work, together as one team,” believing unionization would have divided management and labor. Southern states have opened their doors to foreign auto-manufacturing. If the U.S. has any chance of returning its manufacturing base, it needs to keep well-intentioned unions from killing the business environment. Generations of unions set the benchmark high for non-union shops paying today’s competitive salaries and benefits.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.