Many postmortems regarding the union organizing failure at the VW plant in Chattanooga have focused on the aggressive anti-union resistance that swarmed into town ahead of the election to undermine what appeared to be a pre-ordained outcome between VW and the United Auto Workers. The arrangement between the company and the union was rather simple: in exchange for a neutrality agreement by the UAW, whereby the union agreed in advance to help control costs (meaning workers’ wages and benefits) to help the company remain competitive, VW would not oppose an organizing drive that would result in a management-labor cooperative business model that Volkswagen has found to be quite successful. The Chattanooga plant, the only one in the VW system outside of China to be without union representation, was an anomaly that needed to be rectified. Thus, the organizing drive was initially greeted with excitement by the majority of workers, especially since the company seemed to be in favor of the idea, or at least not opposed to it.
So what happened? No matter how hard the UAW tried to smile affably and appear rehabilitated from its wicked, wicked ways, it simply could not overcome the stigma of being the bully who beat up your honor student. It was not for lack of trying. UAW President Bob King has made dozens of media appearances since the collapse of the US Auto Industry in 2009 promoting the new enlightened autoworkers union that learned the hard way that management and labor need to work together to assure competitiveness and viability in the global marketplace. Five years, however, has not erased the memory of General Motors filing for bankruptcy and the taxpayer-funded bailouts that kept the industry on life-support until its turnaround. Obviously, the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit just last year was an additional blemish on the UAW, even though the two events are unrelated, except in the eyes of conservative anti-union aficionados and those who believe them without question.
Clearly, the UAW came to town with a reputation deficit, but that could have been overcome with a little persistence and some clear headedness. It is easy to assign the organizing drive’s death blow to conservative interlopers like Senator Bob Corker and State Senator Bo Watson whose apocalyptic threats certainly swayed some undecided minds. But that deflects blame away from the UAW itself, for in its effort to seem non-threatening and non-confrontational, it failed to be engaging at all, or at least as much as was required if it hoped to succeed. Not only did the union fail to gather support from community organizations that would have been sympathetic to it, they also decided not to visit individual workers in their homes, apparently because VW mentioned that it violates German labor union norms. Whether or not this was a deliberate strategy to appease VW or was merely the result of being overconfident about the outcome of the election remains to be determined. But this failure made it possible for anti-union forces to move in and plant the seeds of fear in the minds of families, friends, and neighbors that a Yes vote for the UAW would sacrifice the economic future of Chattanooga and surrounding communities because it would scare off potential employers who wanted to move to the area but who might change their minds if moving there meant dealing with labor hassles. Confining their efforts to the workplace prevented the UAW from refuting these charges one on one at workers’ homes.
However, beyond bad timing, bad strategy, and being labelled as the Monster That Ate Detroit, what really sank the UAW was the fact that the VW workers in Chattanooga were not especially unhappy and were not nursing any abiding grievances. If the promise of union representation is higher wages and better benefits, then the pre-negotiated neutrality agreement between the UAW and Volkswagen proved toxic. The two-tier wage structure the UAW helped institute at the Big Three in Detroit meant that the Chattanooga workers were already earning as much as new hires in Michigan, and in some cases more when the cost of living in factored in. Moreover, the works council representation carrot was not a great incentive in isolation given that the workers reported they are often asked for their input regarding production and other matters. Work and safety conditions were not an issue because the plant is almost brand new and is well-kept. Health care benefits, long a glittering gem that unions held up in front of the eyes of potential members, is really no longer much of an issue. In short, the UAW did not have a lot to offer the workers that the workers did not already have. In addition, the neutrality agreement was perceived by many to be an admission that the union would not militate for higher wages on behalf of the workers if it was potentially damaging to VW’s market share. Some workers who voted No cited the neutrality agreement as the motive for their vote in spite of the fact that they wanted the UAW to represent them. What is the point, they asked, of having a union if their purpose is to hold down wages?
Also, the labor movement, especially in the manufacturing sector, has to come to terms with the fact that advances in human resources theory and practice have been adopted by many companies to quell worker dissatisfaction, reduce turnover, and compete globally with their rivals even when plant site location is geared towards areas with surplus labor, such as in many areas of the southern United States where the agrarian economy has been dominant well into the present day. Above all else, the South needs jobs and is happy to welcome a new plant or factory to an area that has had a paucity of them. Moreover, in an area of the country where paternalism and deference is woven into the culture there is little experience or history of viewing employers as adversaries out to harm them. Indeed, in many cases the opposite attitude is true. An Alabama autoworker summed up worker satisfaction this way when recalling his experience at a Mercedes plant: “They were proud to work there. They’re told when they’re hired that they’re the best, and if people don’t work there it’s because ‘they’re not good enough and you are.'” Sometimes a pat on the back is all it takes. From the outside looking in, that kind of simplistic deference and naïve happiness can be maddening, and many observers are baffled because it looks as if Southern workers are voting against their best interests. But it is eminently practical given the employment situation in many areas of the South. As one VW worker in Chattanooga explained after voting down the union, “Are you kidding? This is Chattanooga. This is as good as it gets.”
The UAW needs to wait for a time when “as good as it gets” is no longer good enough before they can make any headway in the South.