Everything seemed to be going the United Auto Workers’ way: A company actively in support, laws that don’t require workers to pay dues even if they vote for a union, automatic membership in a German-style “works council” that would give employees real authority over day-to-day matters at the plant. A “yes” ballot was risk-free.
But late on Friday night, 712 employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted against joining the union — more than enough to overwhelm the 626 who voted in favor.
On its face, the vote was shocking to supporters.
“My company is freely offering me voting rights,” said pro-union worker Chris Brown, in the days preceding the vote. “Why would I turn it down? They want my voice.”
The news is a huge blow for the UAW, which has struggled for decades to organize foreign automakers drawn to the South in part because of its low union density — a phenomenon that has dragged down wages even at Detroit’s unionized Big Three. After years of discouraging losses, the UAW had staked its Southern strategy on winning this one.
“I think it was unprecedented that outside forces, whether it was the Koch brothers and the money they spent here, whether it was (Senator Bob) Corker, whether it was Grover Norquist, all these people who were going to come in and threaten the company and threaten workers, to me was outrageous,” said UAW President Bob King, at a news conference after the tally was announced.
In a high-profile public campaign, Republican politicians threatened to withhold further tax incentives if the plant organized, while D.C. conservative activist Grover Norquist plastered the town with anti-union billboards and churned out UAW-bashing op-eds.
As the vote commenced, Corker even said he’d been “assured” that Volkswagen would make a planned new SUV in Chattanooga rather than Mexico if workers voted no, even though the company has said consistently that the vote had no bearing on its choice.
The real ground game, by contrast, came by way of a dedicated core of anti-union workers who handed out flyers, voiced their opposition through a website and social media, and held a big meeting Feb. 8 to make their case.
“It just spread,” said Mike Jarvis, in a group gathered outside the news conference in the rain on Friday night, wearing blue T-shirts with a crossed-out UAW.
“I told two people who told four people who told eight people, like a pyramid kind of thing.”
The winning argument? Jarvis said people on the fence were persuaded by a clause in a Neutrality Agreement negotiated between Volkswagen and the UAW before the election, establishing a principle of “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages” that Volkswagen enjoys over its competitors.
In other words, keeping wages and benefits from getting too high relative to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — which Jarvis calculated would take $3 per hour off his current pay.
The problem is, what Jarvis interpreted as wage suppression was exactly the kind of innovation that the union was counting on to deliver a win. Since the auto bailouts in 2009 and in a departure from its militant past, the UAW has shifted toward a more cooperative approach that it says is aimed at helping companies succeed.
“With every company that we work with, we’re concerned about competitiveness,” King said, when asked why the clause was included. “We are showing that companies that succeed by this cooperation can have higher wages and benefits because of the joint success.”