February 18 2014

Chattanooga VW Workers Speak: We Don't Want To Be Detroit!

Charlotte Hays

The workers have spoken: no United Auto Workers Union at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By a vote of 712 to 636, workers at the VW plant on Friday rejected the United Auto Workers Union, which had spent more than $5 million in a campaign to unionize the shop.

The editors of National Review described the vote this way:

Workers at Volkswagen’s sedan factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., soundly rejected a bid by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to subsume them.

In this the workers were considerably wiser than VW management, which took an officially neutral stance on the unionization effort but is in general kindly disposed to efforts to transplant the “workers’ council” model, with which it has enjoyed success at home, from Germany to its American operations.

German automakers maintain a largely cooperative relationship with IG Metall, the main autoworkers’ union. But the UAW is a very different sort of beast, a fact not lost on the Chattanooga workers who handed it an enormously important defeat.

In its effort to subsume the workers at the VW plant, the UAW very possibly won’t let this vote be the final word. The union, whose membership has declined steeply, needs the workers far more than the workers need the UAW. It is possible the UAW will seek help from its friends at the National Labor Relations Board and appeal the vote. But the plant employees obviously took a long, hard look at what the UAW wrought in Detroit.

The UAW was a key factor in the near death experiences of two car companies in Detroit.  The car companies were saddled with unsustainable costs and silly rules that did harm to the company, while providing little for the workers, beyond the possibility that they would be relieved to their jobs if the company failed. Only a taxpayer bailout prevented that failure.

Meanwhile, the Chattanooga employees are aware that their wages are roughly comparable to those of new workers at the unionized Detroit shops. The Wall Street Journal editors write:  

The failure [to embrace the union] reflects how well the plant's workers are doing without a union, to the tune of $27 an hour including benefits. The defeat also speaks to the harm the UAW has done to itself by driving GM and Chrysler to bankruptcy and pushing companies like Caterpillar to move new production from union plants.

These columns have long argued that a company organized by a union usually deserves what it gets, but most workers understand that the modern union offer is often a Faustian bargain. The UAW may be able to negotiate a near-term increase in pay and job security for current workers. But the price—in addition to the steep coerced dues—is usually a less competitive company that means less security and fewer jobs in the long run. The best proof is the UAW itself: It has lost 75% of its members in 35 years as its demands and work rules made their employers less competitive. …

[T]he fact that unions must rely on brute government force shows how out of touch they are with modern economic reality. American manufacturing is making a modest comeback with the help of rising labor costs in China and the American energy revolution. But it could stage an even bigger revival without the threat that unions could once again make American production uncompetitive. The last thing the U.S. economy needs is to import European labor practices. In Chattanooga, and not for the first time, the workers are smarter than management.  

If the UAW seeks to overturn the vote, it will have friends. While its support among actual workers may be on the decline, the Democratic Party, a prime beneficiary of those compulsory dues the UAW extracts from workers and uses to make hefty campaign contributions, still needs the unions. So what if the workers have spoken?

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus