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Volkswagen workers in Tennessee reject UAW

New Volkswagen models on display at this year's North American International Auto Show/
New Volkswagen models on display at this year's North American International Auto Show/
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Auto workers in Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, TN rejected United Auto Worker (UAW) representation by a vote of 712 – 626. That’s not a landslide but it represents a significant defeat for the UAW which has been trying to organize import auto plants for many years with no success.

Most observers assumed workers would vote in favor of the UAW, especially since VW did not oppose the UAW and took an officially neutral position.

So where does this leave the UAW?

Some context
All hourly auto workers in U.S. plants operated by Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Chrysler Corporation are represented by the UAW. In Canada, Big Three auto workers are represented by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

Over the past 25 years dozens of GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor Company manufacturing and assembly plants closed in Michigan and other states in the upper Midwest. Those plant closures devastated communities in which they were located.

Many Big Three plants that didn’t close were downsized. One example is Ford’s Rouge complex in Dearborn, MI which employed 100,000 during the 1960s. Today the Rouge employs approximately 4,000 workers.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude auto manufacturing in the U.S. is in terminal decline. While the Big Three were closing plants and shedding workers, foreign auto manufacturers like Nissan, Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, Mercedes Benz and Hyundai were building plants in states like Tennessee, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, California, Alabama, Georgia and Indiana.

UAW opportunity
As the domestic auto manufacturers lost market share and shuttered plants, UAW membership declined from its peak of 1,500,000 members in 1979 to just over 350,000 today. With Ford, GM and Chrysler manufacturing employment flat or on the decline, the only opportunity for the UAW to regain clout and build membership rests with the foreign manufacturer plants.

With the Chattanooga defeat, it appears the UAW will remain a Big Three-only union in the Midwest and Northeast for the foreseeable future.

Does this recent defeat at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant represent a permanent setback for the UAW’s plans to organize auto plants in the southern U.S.? Not necessarily. Workers rejected the UAW but the margin was only 86 votes. Volkswagen workers remain free to hold another election and certify the UAW or another union to represent them.

According to a Reuters report, there was some politicking on the part of Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker during the three day voting period, which ended Friday, February 14. Corker is reported to have made a statement that VW would expand the Chattanooga plant - if the workers voted to reject union representation. The Chattanooga plant, however, was built with the expectation that another product line would someday be added.

Outside interference
The UAW website alleges Corker and others exerted unfair influence. Whether Corker’s statement turned the election against the UAW is not clear as the UAW has been attempting to organize the Chattanooga plant for the past two years. Furthermore, Volkswagen did not oppose the union or exclude UAW organizers from the plant.

If the UAW can't successfully organize a plant where there was no opposition from management, UAW leaders will have to re-assess their strategy, tactics and their message before attempting to organize other plants.

The Chattanooga vote must still be certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), according to Reuters.

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