Detroit—The shocking defeat of the United Auto Workers in a union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, dealt a serious blow to the organizing strategy of the UAW in the South. UAW President Bob King was confident of a win because a majority of the plant workers had signed cards for the UAW and VW management did not oppose the union.
VW had even permitted union representatives to speak to workers in the plant, unheard of in Southern states where not one foreign auto plant is unionized.
When King was elected president five years ago, he placed unionizing foreign-owned plants at the top of his priority list and has been pursuing that goal very aggressively ever since, including discussions with the union representing VW workers in Germany, where VW plants all have work councils composed of production and white-collar workers who establish procedures and rules regarding matters such as vacations, work hours and firing of workers. The company is anxious to establish such a council at the Chattanooga plant, which under U.S. law would be legal only if a union existed.
Despite the relatively favorable conditions at the plant with 1,550 hourly employees, the workers voted 712 to 626 to reject the UAW, with the defeat due primarily to conservative and reactionary forces arrayed against the union. This opposition included millions of dollars to finance billboards, newspaper and magazine ads, and leaflets. Radio talk-show commentators and politicians kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks against the union.
Spearheading the opposition was U.S. Senator Bob Corker, former Chattanooga mayor, who claimed that VW would move production of a new car model to Mexico if the union won (a claim denied by VW executives). State legislators threatened to cancel already promised incentives to VW if there was a pro-union vote.
King noted that if 44 workers had switched their votes, the union would have won. The UAW appealed the results to the National Labor Relations Board, declaring that blatant outside interference made it impossible to hold a fair election. The appeal to the NLRB faces an uncertain future.
Critics of the UAW pointed out that the union did little to organize community support and offered little to the workers themselves. VW workers start at $14.50 an hour and rise to $19.50 in three years, whereas UAW workers hired under the two-tier bailout contract start at $15.78 and rise to $19.28. After subtracting union dues, VW workers would make less.
This is more than just a defeat at VW. The national attention on this election will embolden reactionary forces to increase their assaults against labor. Reactionaries in Tennessee are already appealing to politicians throughout the South to increase their anti-union attacks. This message will be heard and applauded by many in the North as well.