By Al Kinzer
By a vote of 712 to 626, the VW workers in Chattanooga rejected UAW representation. The defeat leaves the UAW in a precarious state. The UAW was hoping to use a victory at VW as momentum for its campaigns at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, and at Mercedes Benz in Vance, Alabama. Instead, the UAW finds that it invested heavily over the past two years in a losing effort, and its cash is declining. In four months, the UAW will increase its monthly dues 25% to try to stop the cash drain. The dues increase will likely make it harder for the UAW to sell its representation.
The loss is particularly difficult for the UAW because the UAW had the near-perfect conditions to win. VW had signed a written contract to remain “neutral.” Arguably, VW went beyond “neutral” by favoring the UAW. VW management permitted UAW organizers to sell UAW membership inside the plant and during company meetings. VW let the UAW organizers use an office near the production floor and allowed the UAW organizers to set up tables in the cafeteria and break areas. It is hard to imagine a more favorable climate for a union preceding a secret ballot election.
Yet, there was opposition. A group of VW workers started opposing the effort. The National Right to Work Foundation represented VW workers opposed to the UAW, and a new non-profit organization called Southern Momentum helped the group produce videos and other campaign material against the UAW.
Then, the Southern politicians spoke. At first, U.S. Senator Bob Corker said that he would remain silent during the last week of the campaign. Sen. Corker, a native Chattanoogan and former Mayor, was instrumental in recruiting VW to the city. But just before voting began, Sen. Corker broke his silence because he claimed that the UAW was using his silence in its favor. In a press conference and repeatedly through the voting time, Sen. Corker stated that he had been assured by VW officials that, if the UAW was rejected, VW would expand the plant and build its new SUV in Chattanooga. VW’s local President denied providing any such assurances.
Other Tennessee officeholders joined in. Some stated that if the UAW were elected, VW would have a hard time getting tax incentives for the plant. Others said that a UAW victory would make it hard to encourage other employers to locate in Tennessee.
The UAW is blaming the loss on those Tennessee politicians and says that it is considering legal challenges. However, the NLRA governs the conduct and statements of the employer during union elections. The Act does not govern the behavior of politicians. Thus, unless these statements can be tied to VW, it is difficult to see what the UAW’s legal challenge may be.
If these statements by the Tennessee politicians had any effect on the outcome of the election, they may have provided a guide for politicians in Alabama and Mississippi in opposing unionization there. Despite the UAW’s claims to the contrary, it is difficult to prove that these politicians’ statements had any effect.
One national politician entered the fray on the last day of voting. President Obama declared his support for the UAW. It is far more likely that the well-organized opposition by several hundred VW workers impacted their voting co-workers more than any politicians’ statements, for or against.
The UAW has until Friday, February 21, 2014, to file any challenges to the vote with the NLRB.