Employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have rejected membership in the United Auto Workers union. In a blow to organized labor, Volkswagen workers voted against the measure by a vote of 712 to 626, derailing attempts to make it the first unionized foreign-owned car factory in the United States. But the union faced intense opposition from Republican lawmakers, including threats suggesting the plant might miss out on future subsidies or on a new SUV line if the union succeeded. Outside groups also played a role. To find out more about the implications of the vote, we speak to Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, who has been following the events leading up to the vote at the Volkswagen plant. His most recent article is “Labor Regroups in South After VW Vote.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where employees at a Volkswagen plant have rejected membership in the United Auto Workers union, or UAW. In a blow to organized labor, Volkswagen workers decided against the measure by a vote of 712 to 626, derailing attempts to make it the first unionized foreign-owned car factory in the United States. But the union faced intense opposition from Republican lawmakers, including threats suggesting the plant might miss out on future subsidies or on a new SUV line if the union succeeded. Outside groups also played a role. The D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform funded more than a dozen local billboards urging an anti-union vote. By law, the UAW cannot begin another organizing effort at the Volkswagen plant for another year.
AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about the implications of the vote, we go to Houston to speak with Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, who’s been following the events leading up to the vote at the Volkswagen plant. His most recent piece in The New York Times is headlined “Labor Regroups in South After VW Vote.” He’s also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.
Steven, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what happened. I mean, a majority of the workers had to sign on to have this vote. The vote took place. Both sides thought they’d win, but the UAW lost.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, the UAW was totally stunned that it lost. It really thought it would win. Last September, it collected cards from a majority of workers showing that, you know, they generally supported a union. There was a campaign where the union thought it was going pretty well.
Then, in the last week, Republican politicians in Tennessee really weighed in very heavily against the union. Governor Bill Haslam said that, you know, if the union wins, auto suppliers are not going to come to Chattanooga; they’re going to be scared to locate near a unionized Volkswagen. Some Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature said that if the union comes in, they’re not going to approve incentives to help bring, to help woo Volkswagen to bring a second production line to make SUVs at the plant. And then Bob Corker, Republican senator from Tennessee, former mayor of Chattanooga, said that he had heard from people at Volkswagen that if the union loses, then Volkswagen will bring in this second auto line.
And workers I spoke to at Volkswagen said that these threats, pressures from Republicans really persuaded some, perhaps many, workers to vote against the union. Remember, you know, the South is an anti-union part of the country. Unions have had a very hard time getting traction there. But I think some of these statements and pressures from Republican lawmakers might have really helped tip the balance. The union lost by 86 votes. All it would have taken would have been 44 workers to change their mind. You know, one worker I spoke to yesterday said, you know, “When you hear the former mayor of Chattanooga, when you hear various state lawmakers representing Chattanooga say, 'Look folks, for the good of our—for the good of our city, for the good of our region, you know, for future jobs, for expansion, for jobs for your neighbors, perhaps for your sons and daughters, you should vote against the union,' I think a lot of workers took that, those hints, and ended up voting against the union.”
AMY GOODMAN: The president of the United Auto Workers expressed disappointment with the results of the election and was very critical of what he called outside interference in the vote. This video is of UAW President Bob King. He posted it online.
BOB KING: We’re also outraged at the outside interference in this election. It’s never happened in this country before that a U.S. senator, a governor, a leader of the House, a leader of the Legislature here threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with the loss of product. We think that that’s outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s UAW President Bob King. Steven Greenhouse, he referred to the senator. That was Senator Bob Corker, played a very active role here. You had the Grover Norquist billboards all over town showing images of Detroit, saying, “This is what could happen to us in Chattanooga.”
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah. So, you know I’ve been writing about labor for a long time, and I’ve never seen such aggressive outside intervention in any union campaign. And I think that—you know, I think the union was, in ways, slow and not aggressive in responding. I think it was really caught off balance.
You know, I think—you know, in ways, the UAW was damned if it did, damned if it didn’t. So you had the governor and the senator and local lawmakers saying, “If the UAW comes in, that’s going to make our region less competitive, it’s going to hurt our business climate, it will help make it harder for us to attract jobs.” And Bob King very much indicated, “We are a new UAW. We are going to be more cooperative,” and he signed this neutrality agreement with Volkswagen where he actually pledged to help keep Volkswagen’s wages competitive vis-à-vis some of the other automakers. So, he’s like bending over backwards to say, “We’re not the old confrontational UAW of old.” So, on one hand, many workers kind of were uncomfortable with the UAW because they thought it would be too confrontational and hurt business image, hurt Chattanooga’s efforts to bring jobs. On the other hand, you know, some workers voted against the union because they thought it was being too accommodating and like bending over backwards and saying, “Well, we will restrain wages to help assure that the factory would be competitive.”
And I think the UAW really has an uphill climb many times in battles because, you know, as these Grover Norquist billboards said, they tried to tar the UAW with the—with all the problems of Detroit. And we know, you know, the UAW played a role, but the automakers made a humongous number of mistakes, you know, and that was certainly a big reason, too, for the decline of Detroit and the automakers in Detroit. And Bob King kept saying, “Well, you look at Detroit now and how it’s rebounded, you look at the GM factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee, which has reopened since the recession and has added 1,800 workers, and I think is going to add another 1,800 workers.” And Bob King very much tries to make the case that “we’re a different union, we’re helping Detroit, we’re helping American automakers rebound, and we could help Volkswagen do very well also.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Steven Greenhouse, you said you’ve covered labor for a very long time, but you’ve never seen this—the extent of this kind of external interference in such an election. Can you explain what accounts for this in this case and also what you think the UAW could have done differently, if anything, to sway the vote?
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Sure. I think, for Governor Haslam, for Senator Corker, for the Republicans, it’s kind of a win-win-win. You know, they please their base by being tough towards the unions. You know, that clearly makes the tea party happy. It makes conservative donors happy. Second, I think they do have a concern that if the union comes in, it’s going to hurt the business climate, and they figure, you know, “We might as well try to keep the union out.” And third, I think they very much see the UAW—if the UAW were to win, it would be, you know, this powerful liberal force getting its nose under the tent and helping Democrats in Tennessee, and they want to do as much as they can to help keep the Democrats from having any resurgence in Tennessee. So it’s like a win-win-win for the Republicans in really going after the unions.
I think the UAW might have been more effective in several ways. And when you’re trying to organize in the South, you have to—you know, and you want to win, just strategically, you’ve got to do every single thing, you know, work every angle to try to maximize your chances. This one very impressive anti-union worker, Mike Burton, ran this very elaborate and impressive website, and I think that a lot of people paid a lot of attention to, and I don’t think the UAW website began to compare.
You know, Mike Elk, a reporter for In these Times, had a good story saying that the UAW should have reached out more to community groups. You know, the UAW, I think, was very confident it could win. It had a majority of cards, so I think it felt it did not really need to spend the time and energy to develop big ties with community groups to help put—you know, get the ball over the goal line. And I think, in the final days when it faced all this pressure and criticism from the governor, from the senator, from local lawmakers, you know, I think it would have helped them to have cemented further ties.
And third, I think the union was a—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The anti-union forces were much more aggressive in using the media and getting onto TV, and I think the union was a little slow in that regard.
AMY GOODMAN: Steven Greenhouse, we want to thank you for being with us, labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, speaking to us from Houston. We’ll link to your piece at democracynow.org.