Feb 15 2014, 10:54am CST | by Forbes
The United Auto Workers union can’t be blamed if it is still in shock this weekend. Late Friday, workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., defeated a union organizing drive that until this past week looked like a sure thing.
The VW workers, who seemed bound to give the UAW the Southern car plant victory it has long sought, instead turned down union membership by a margin of about 54 percent to 46 percent.
That margin spelled trouble for two reasons. First, it was a loss, and second, it showed how much ground the UAW has to make up if it ever hopes to win a VW vote.
Ideally, unions need more than a simple majority in organizing drives. They like to win at least two-thirds support, in order to provide ammunition against legal challenges, and show that that workers definitively wanted to join.
This defeat happened even though VW was officially neutral in the organizing drive, a stance that in corporate terms is akin to cheering the union on.
Many non-Southern observers were stunned, but they should not have been. Late last week, rumors were quietly circulating in Southern business circles that the UAW was likely to lose, in large part because of an anti-union campaign led by Tennessee Republican Sen. Robert Corker Jr.
Corker was the mayor of Chattanooga when the plant was originally conceived, and he fought hard in the Senate to push the UAW to agree to wage and benefit cuts as part of a 2008 auto bailout that eventually failed, leaving a rescue plan up to the Bush and Obama administrations.
Corker’s battle against the UAW wasn’t just a one-off situation, however. For years, Southern government officials, business leaders and auto company employees have aligned themselves against the UAW.
They are not about to stop fighting now. And, the defeat of the UAW at Volkswagen shows just how powerful a force this anti-union feeling is across the region.
Of course, there are exceptions. For years, the UAW represented workers at Detroit manufacturing facilities across the South, many of which are now closed. Other unions, like steel, textile and rubber workers, have represented workers at southern plants.
But by and large, the South has kept many unions out, through Right to Work laws that prevent them from automatically collecting dues, to individual campaigns in towns like Tupelo, Miss., against labor organizations.
There are three major reasons why Corker’s anti-UAW campaign, and the other efforts to keep out unions will go on.
The Southern brand. Simply put, the South has branded itself across the United States and to global companies as a union-free zone. There is no starker picture of this than the auto companies.
In more than 30 years, none of the free-standing assembly plants owned by foreign manufacturers in the United States have ever been organized. (This doesn’t include factories that originally began as joint ventures, such as the former Chrysler-Mitsubishi plant in Illinois or the General Motors-Toyota joint venture factory in Fremont, Calif., now home to Tesla.)
The UAW has tried various degrees of organizing drives at Nissan, Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz, to name a few. Every single time, the UAW has been pushed back. Why? Because the message the South sent to foreign manufacturers was, “Come here, and we’ll keep unions out.”
Even if a company like VW doesn’t fight, others like Corker will do so for them. And I’m not 100 percent convinced that Corker didn’t get a wink and a nod from the German company to do battle on its behalf. VW is making important decisions on where to make future investments. Turning down the UAW is a point on Chattanooga’s favor.
Competition from elsewhere. Since the latter part of the 20th Century, the South has touted itself as a cheaper place to do business than the American North and Midwest. That was particularly true when companies considered Right to Work laws in their site location equations.
But two years ago, Indiana decided to become a Right To Work state, followed, incredibly in some eyes, by Michigan. No longer could southern states use Right to Work as a weapon against the Midwest. And, increasingly, they’re dealing with the prospect of seeing investment go to Mexico, and beyond there, to China.
Many Chattanoogans assumed VW would have announced plans for a second plant there by now. The VW plant site, which sits on the outskirts of town, has plenty of room for another factory. The VW plant went up so quickly, and VW’s sales have risen so swiftly, that it seemed a given.
Instead, Chattanoogans watched in puzzlement as VW decided to build an Audi factory in Mexico. There have been other Mexican automotive investments announced, too, and that causes some sweaty brows in southern states that thought they had an advantage.
It behooves these southern leaders to keep fighting the UAW, not just because of regional reputation, but also because of the actual threat from foreign locations.
Plain old pride. The auto industry has been one of the biggest examples of success for the South over the past three decades. In August, 2012, I drove 4,000 miles over 11 days to visit every new car plant built in the Deep South.
Over and over, I heard stories of how individual lives had been transformed by jobs at car plants. I saw towns that once were dots on the map get new schools, libraries and ballparks. People told me that when they wore their car plant work gear to the grocery store, they were treated like celebrities.
Truly, these gleaming factories spread across acres of red clay and nestled in among pine trees have been a huge point of pride. That feeling is inextricably linked to the idea that these plants are union-free. The factories have been the South’s proof that its workers also have manufacturing skill, and they don’t need a middleman to speak for them.
The Detroit auto bailout simply burnished this sense of accomplishment, and most likely deepened resentment of the UAW, whose members did not take pay cuts as part of the $82 billion in federal assistance to the industry (there were ample concessions of other types, of course).
Now, obviously, unions can offer protection, and a valuable ally for workers as they deal with management. But as the UAW has found out in Chattanooga, the fight is bigger than convincing workers to join. The fight is with the South, as well.
Source: Forbes Auto
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