On Friday, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, TN dealt a major blow to the United Auto Workers (UAW) and to Big Labor in general when they voted 712-626 to reject the union. The loss is only the latest setback for the union, which has seen right-to-work laws established in Michigan and has struggled to organize new plants. It may have won major White House-brokered concessions (at the expense of primary creditors) in the Detroit auto bailout in 2009, but the UAW is otherwise in decline, and the Volkswagen loss stings especially bitterly.
As the Wall Street Journal explained Saturday:
The setback is a bitter defeat because the union had the cooperation of Volkswagen management and the aid of Germany’s powerful IG Metall union, yet it failed to win a majority among the plants 1,550 hourly workers.
Volkswagen workers rejected the union by a vote of 712 to 626. The defeat raises questions about the future of a union that for years has suffered from declining membership and influence, and almost certainly leaves its president, Bob King, who had vowed to organize at least one foreign auto maker by the time he retires in June, with a tarnished legacy.
“If the union can’t win [in Chattanooga], it can’t win anywhere,” said Steve Silvia, a economics and trade professor at American University who has studied labor unions.
The Huffington Post mourned the loss while acknowledging its importance as a barometer of labor strength, and blaming cultural factors for the outcome:
“We thought we had the number we needed,” says [pro-UAW worker] Cliett. “We could analyze for days and not really know for sure, but I do think the last minute blitz of negative campaigning from our politicians turned some votes to no. What is going on with these people? Lynyrd Skynyrd may not have liked the song written by Neil Young, ‘Southern Man,’ but Neil had a point.”
The civil rights-era song “Southern Man” is one that Young now says he regrets: “I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” Perhaps that helps explain the UAW’s loss: they are detached from the present-day reality of the workers they are trying to organize, and an industry to which they have done significant damage in recent decades.