By Melanie Trottman and Kris Maher
Volkswagen employees' rejection of the United Auto Workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., signals that it will be difficult
for unions to enter private-sector workplaces, particularly in the South, where organized labor has been making a
concerted effort to grow over the long term.
The workers' decision announced late on Friday to reject UAW membership at the three-year-old plant was a broad
blow, as labor's largest federation--the AFL-CIO--tries to reinvigorate a movement beset by long-term membership losses
and eroding political clout. The vote went 712 to 626 against the union.
"It wasn't just a loss for the UAW, it was a loss for the AFL-CIO and the entire labor movement," said Gary
Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "They have a product they're
selling and people aren't buying it."
Last year, unions represented 11.3% of U.S. workers, flat with 2012 but down from about 20% in 1983. The private-
sector membership rate was just 6.7%, compared with 35.3% in the public sector. Even union officials concede private-
sector workplaces have been the most difficult to penetrate in recent decades.
More recently, unions' political clout and financial coffers have suffered as they've fought bruising battles with
lawmakers in cash-strapped states. Unions have marked some victories, but there have been losses in states that have
laid off public-sector union members, curbed collective-bargaining rights and adopted right-to-work laws that allow
employees to opt out of union membership and dues.
Amid membership declines at industrial unions like the UAW, the AFL-CIO has begun to partner with outside nonprofit
groups and has tried to organize more low-wage service workers. The federation also announced a plan last year to start
focusing more on Southern organizing and politics, particularly in Texas, which last year had one-fourth as many union
members as New York state despite having 2.7 million more wage and salaried employees, according to Labor Department
The UAW launched its own southern strategy in recent years to organize foreign-owned auto makers throughout the
traditionally antiunion region. But after this week's Volkswagen vote, the prospect for gaining members at the UAW, and
perhaps more broadly, looks bleaker now. This latest loss is also spurring debate over who is to blame for union
defeats: the unions themselves or outside political forces that don't want organized labor in their backyards. In
Tennessee, politicians and out-of-state organizations mobilized against the Volkswagen vote.
"There is no use getting around it, it's devastating," Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of
California at Santa Barbara, said of the Volkswagen vote. "Here's a place where more or less the company was in fact
genuinely neutral, and the union lost."
In January, Germany'sVolkswagen AG and the UAW agreed on a plan to conduct the election. The company allowed union
organizers inside the factory for more than a week, in an unusual case of an employer working with a union trying to
gain a foothold in its workplace. Volkswagen cooperated with the UAW because the company wanted the plant workers to
form a works council, which is a committee of employees who would give management feedback on running the plant. Works
councils are the norm in Germany, and there are similar bodies in other European countries.
A group of Volkswagen workers opposed to the union launched their own campaign, and Republican politicians from
Tennessee, including Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam, urged workers to vote against the union on the grounds that
unionization would raise costs and hurt the plant and the state competitively.
Sen. Corker issued a statement late on Wednesday saying that based on conversations he had, he felt "assured that
should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new
midsize SUV here in Chattanooga." Volkswagen responded that there was "no connection" between the unionization and the
decision on where to build the plant.
Immediately after the results of the three-day vote were disclosed, antiunion groups said it was a sign that
workers see perils in unionizing and that the labor movement lacks value in the workplace.
"The workers in Chattanooga understood unionization would cost them hard-earned dollars, result in the loss of
their individuality and imperil their future," said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute, one
of organized labor's most vocal opponents. The outcome "sends yet another message to Big Labor bosses that they cannot
strong arm their way into American businesses and force workers into unions they don't want," Mr. Wszolek said.
Labor officials saw the results differently. In a brief statement Friday night after the votes were counted, the
UAW said the election was met with "a firestorm of interference and threats from special interest groups."
"While we certainly would have liked a victory for workers here, we deeply respect the Volkswagen Global Group
Works Council, Volkswagen management and IG Metall for doing their best to create a free and open atmosphere for workers
to exercise their basic human right to form a union," said UAW President Bob King. IG Metall is a giant German
Still, the vote loss won't end the UAW's attempts to organize at foreign-owned American plants. It has another
long-running organizing campaign at a Nissan plant in Mississippi, among other efforts. But the loss in Tennessee will
strip the union of some clout in future negotiations with the three Detroit auto makers and lead to more downward
pressure on wages at unionized plants, said Mr. Lichtenstein, the labor historian at the University of California at
Mr. Lichtenstein said it is conceivable that the UAW could try to void the voting results by taking a challenge to
the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections, and allege that politicians and outside groups
interfered with and tainted the election. But he said allegations of interference typically focus on the employer, which
in this situation would likely make for a weak case, he added.
To be sure, the defeat could give labor some momentum by leading it to redouble efforts to organize more service-
sector employees, such as taxi drivers and domestic workers, said Clark's Mr. Chaison. Labor could do this through its
partnerships with nonprofit groups and the so-called worker centers that don't collectively bargain for workers but can
provide certain other benefits, he said. "It has made the question of the new direction of the labor movement more
relevant," said Mr. Chaison.
Write to Melanie Trottman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Kris Maher at email@example.com
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