Eighty-seven votes seemed like a million late Friday night when it was announced the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant had spurned representation by the United Auto Works union. Fox News called it a “devastating defeat.” The Wall Street Journal called it “crushing” and Businessweek labeled it as “stunning,” this because “Volkswagen tacitly endorsed the union and even allowed organizers into the Chattanooga factory to make sales pitches.”
By noon Saturday there were over 600 stories on Google alone and the reports were frenzied. A prominent writer for the Detroit News wrote that he had been assured, albeit privately, by both VW officials and UAW brass that it was “a done deal.”
But when the votes were counted and 53 percent of the employees voted “No,” the historic 712-626 vote reverberated across the automotive world and seemed to doom any chance for the badly-maligned UAW to ever break into foreign manufacturing plants that now build cars in the United States.
For many in Chattanooga, where bitter memories linger after the unions once swept away virtually all manufacturing, there was a huge satisfaction, this after an increasingly unpopular Barack Obama had chided Republican leaders for their “outside influence” earlier in the day and the President claimed state and local politicians were more “interested in German shareholders than U.S. workers.”
To the contrary, Senator Bob Corker, who was instrumental in bringing the plant to Chattanooga five years ago, told The Wall Street Journal, “I am thrilled for our employees and our community. I am sincerely overwhelmed. The UAW had all of the advantages,” he said, “Everybody but the UAW had both hands tied behind their backs.”
The presumed courtship between VW and the UAW is thought to be due to a somewhat cloudy “works council,” a method of governance said to be successful in Europe but that is – in fact – illegal in the United States. When the UAW began a push, elected politicians sworn to do what is best for the citizens they represent mounted a heavy resistance with ample ammunition from a devastated and now bankrupt Detroit.
Senator Corker, Governor Bill Haslam, former Assistant Governor Claude Ramsey and a host of state legislators – all aware what a scurrilous union presence could mean to the state and the region – soundly castigated the union and Bob King, the UAW president, expressed outrage over the “outside interference.”
A native of Chattanooga, Corker fired back: “Outside! I’ve been involved with bringing Volkswagen here since Day One. To call me or any community leaders outsiders … nothing could be further from the truth.”
Earlier in the week Corker had drawn fire from the nation’s liberal media when he said he had been informed that VW would build new models in Chattanooga if the union threat was thwarted. Plant Manager Frank Fischer quickly retorted the comment, telling reporters there was “no connection” between a new vehicle being manufactured and the union vote, but Corker held his ground.
Corker said, “Believe me, the decisions regarding the Volkswagen expansion are not being made by anyone in management at the Chattanooga plant and we are very aware Frank Fischer is having to use old talking points when he responds to press inquiries. After all these years and my involvement with Volkswagen, I would not have made the statement I made yesterday without being confident it was true and factual.”
Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, told the Detroit News that Friday’s loss is a strategic one for the UAW. “While far from a death knell, this latest defeat suggests a turbulent future for an organization that has steadily lost membership and influence over the past four decades.
“We may never know what impact a union would have on future Volkswagen plant operations in Chattanooga,” said Brauer, “or other foreign plants in the region, but we do know the rapid expansion of Southern auto manufacturing has occurred without union representation.”
VW employee Mike Burton, who works in the paint area of the Volkswagen plant, explained to The Automotive News that the vote doesn’t mean the employees don’t want representation in the plant’s daily operations. “We're just not willing to pay $600 a year to have most of that money go out of our community."
Burton said most of the employees want the same thing. "If they're loyal to the UAW, they're going to have to go someplace else. If they just want employee representation with the management here at Volkswagen, we will come up with a solution -- and we will all benefit from it."
As Sean Moss, another employee, told Reuters, “We felt like we were already being treated very well by Volkswagen in terms of pay and benefits and bonuses." Added Moss, who voted against the UAW. "We also looked at the track record of the UAW. Why buy a ticket on the Titanic?"
The UAW isn’t going away quietly. Under an agreement with VW, the UAW must cease all organizing for a year before they can attempt another try in Chattanooga. Desperate union officials have indicated they will now approach Nissan plants in Smyrna, Tn., and Canton, Miss., and place an emphasis on the Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Analysts believe the UAW must achieve a breakthrough with a foreign manufacturer to have any leverage with “The Big Three” when contract negotiations resume with GM, Ford and Chrysler later this year.
Dennis Williams, the UAW’s Secretary-Treasurer and the heir-apparent to follow King as the union president, told one reporter early Saturday morning, “We're not leaving Chattanooga," he said. “It took seven years to organize Ford, and I will be around for at least another five."