Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
After a nearly three-year organizing drive at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, TN, the United Auto Workers (UAW) lost a certification election by a vote of 712 to 626 on February 14. Having collected a majority of authorization cards from the plant’s 1,500 workers, the UAW expected a victory in the union’s first election held in a Southern auto transplant since its 2-to-1 defeat at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN in 2001. Union organizing has become increasingly difficult over the last three decades, with many employers violating labor laws and virulently opposing unionization drives. According to a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 30 percent of employers terminate workers for participating in organizing campaigns.
While organizing has always been tougher in the South, especially among white, evangelical males, what was different at the Chattanooga VW factory was that management did not actively oppose the UAW’s efforts. VW signed a neutrality agreement stating that it would not campaign against the union. In fact, VW expected the UAW to win the election. Subsequently, it would then be able to establish a works council — an organization containing workers and managers who cooperate on a daily basis to handle workplace issues – just like in Germany.
So without company opposition, what went wrong? One major argument is that Republican politician interference swayed the election. Gov. Bill Haslam contended that auto suppliers would not relocate to Chattanooga, while state legislators claimed that they would be reluctant to grant additional incentives to VW if the UAW won. Finally, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker stated that high-level VW officials informed him that the company would only bring in a second production line if the union lost the vote.
There is little doubt that these statements negatively affected a situation where only a change of 44 votes was needed for a union victory. But other reasons explain the UAW’s loss. And if the union expects to have a fighting chance at other Southern auto transplants, these problems must be addressed.
The neutrality agreement was a double-edged sword. Although the plant’s upper-level managers abstained from opposing the union, low-level supervisors and salaried workers actively campaigned against the drive. Moreover, the agreement prevented the UAW from conducting house calls – having one-on-one meetings with employees at home – unless specifically requested by workers. House calls are necessary for establishing trust with workers and for addressing employees’ individual issues.
Additionally, the organizing campaign was a top-down effort motivated by the UAW’s national leaders in Detroit rather than a bottom-up effort driven by the VW workers themselves. Earning wages that were superior to what non-college educated workers could make at other Chattanooga-area employers and with good bargains on cars, the workers expressed little animosity to VW. Moreover, the UAW’s campaign was based on protecting VW’s competitive advantage, leaving many workers wondering just what the union could deliver that the company was not already doing for them.
Another major campaign weakness was that the union failed to build community support for its effort. Particularly in the South, successful organizing requires the construction of networks of community activists and the development of relationships among families and neighbors to combat anti-union messages that are more likely to occur and resonate in these right-to-work states. “Chattanooga for Workers,” a community group composed of activists from unions in the area, found it difficult to engage in solidarity efforts with, and to support, the UAW because the union’s campaign did not extend beyond the plant.
The UAW has filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to overturn the election, contending that the Republican politicians’ comments negatively impacted workers’ votes. However, unless the union can demonstrate that these government officials were directly connected to, and acting on behalf of, VW, this will be an uphill battle.
There are other things that the union can do in the meantime. Although the neutrality agreement prevents the UAW from organizing for a year, the union does have a support base that needs to be activated after 12 months. It often takes two or three elections before a union achieves NLRB certification, so this loss does not mean future efforts cannot succeed. Additionally, the next organizing drive at VW must involve active worker participation in all decisions made throughout the campaign and must connect with community support groups. This strategy is currently being used in the UAW’s nine-year organizing drive at the 5,200-worker Nissan factory in Canton, MS where 80 percent of the work force is African-American. An active in-plant organizing committee has linked up with widespread community support in promoting “Labor Rights are Civil Rights” as a major campaign theme. If the UAW adopts some of these tactics during a second VW organizing drive, the results might very well be different the next time around.