Why UAW Made the Right Move at Volkswagen in Chattanooga

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (TheStreet) -- The UAW made the right move Monday, withdrawing its objections to February's unionization vote at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., hours before an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board was scheduled to hear them.

It is easy to conclude that the case was withdrawn because its backers expected to lose. That is usually why cases are withdrawn just before they are about to be heard.

Beyond that, looking ahead, the best result would have been a do-over. In general, people are not fond of do-overs. In February, the UAW lost the closely watched unionization vote by a 53% margin in a 712-626 vote.

No reason exists to think the outcome would be different the second time, even if the union could prove interference by anti-union interest groups and Republican politicians, including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

This was probably an election where, as the saying goes, they stole it fair and square.

Now all of our country's Republican anti-unionists can once again proclaim that the union movement, which they view as an arm of the Democratic party, is dead and can never win anything in the South. But, in fact, that exaggerates what happened.

First, the UAW did not run a brilliant unionization campaign. Many observers make the case that the union failed to explain how it could benefit plant workers. Of course, a victory would have helped the UAW, which is trying to gain a foothold in the South. But would it have helped the workers?

Unfortunately, the UAW long ago succeeded in making auto manufacturing a profession that offers its workers a middle-class lifestyle. So why pay union dues? To show your sense of history?

Secondly, this is a tricky time to try to unionize at Volkswagen. The automaker is evaluating where to produce a mid-sized SUV, with a decision expected shortly. The location could be in Mexico, or it could be in Chattanooga. Corker has said the vote not to unionize assures the plant will be in Chattanooga, while VW has said the vote is not a factor. Still, it is hard to imagine that a vote to unionize would help Chattanooga's chances.

In the UAW press release Monday, UAW President Bob King offered a laundry list of reasons to back down. Among them, he said, the were "the best interests of Volkswagen employees, the automaker, and economic development in Chattanooga." Also,the union feared that "the NLRB's historically dysfunctional and complex process potentially could drag on for months or even years."

On top of that, he cited refusals by Corker and Haslam to participate in the hearing scheduled for Monday. Their refusal, he said, "undermines public trust and confidence."

"The UAW is ready to put February's tainted election in the rearview mirror and instead focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga," King said. Now is the time, he added, for the Haslam administration to provide $300 million in incentives for the plant, which it had previously sought to make contingent on rejection of the unionization bid.

Want more reasons? The union said the federal laws governing the NLRB "never contemplated the level of extreme intimidation and interference that occurred in Chattanooga," and that the same effort would likely continue in a second election. It said a "congressional inquiry into the Haslam administration's incentives threat to Volkswagen provides the best opportunity for additional scrutiny."

It is sad to think that a dysfunctional Congress offers the best opportunity for anything, so let's stipulate that it will resolve nothing.

In the near term, the UAW and the labor movement have three issues that are far more pressing than what has already happened in Chattanooga.

First, it is vitally important that GM  (GM) solve the perception problems that have accompanied its recall of 2.6 million vehicles due to faulty ignition switches. From every indication, GM acted reprehensibly, both in its reaction to known ignition switch failures and in its harsh courtroom tactics in cases where plaintiffs lost family members.

The UAW is heavily invested in GM's bankruptcy restructuring, and its failures inevitably become the UAW's failures, even though the ignition recalls underscore the lesson that many of GM's failures over the years were management failures, not failures of its union model. Opponents of unions are always quick to link the union with GM. So for the union's sake, Mary Barra needs to fix this problem.

Secondly, the mantle to lead the union movement in the South has now passed to the International Association of Machinists. Already the principal union at Boeing  (BA), the IAM is mounting an effort to organize the Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala.

Even the most cursory review of this effort shows that the IAM has a better chance than the UAW did: It has more support within the state, it has more to offer workers and it learned lessons from UAW's failure.

The IAM also plans another run at the Boeing plant in Charleston, S.C.

Third, the union movement needs to remember that what once made it great was helping desperate people who were grossly mistreated, not trying to sell itself to autoworkers who already benefit because it did its job too well. Despite long odds, the union movement needs to redouble its efforts to help farmworkers and other oppressed workers.

North Carolina and most other states have farmworkers -- including tobacco workers -- who make minimum wage or less, suffer a sub-standard lifestyle and often live in labor camps where they can't even reside year round because their work is seasonal.

Who is helping them?

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

To contact this writer,
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Follow @tedreednc

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