The obituary notices for the United Auto Workers Union continued to stack up on Monday after the UAW was voted down at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen assembly plant Friday night, but what is interesting to ponder is what unexpected role a markedly unpopular Barack Obama may have played in the stunning defeat. You’ll recall Mr. Obama made the snide observation that Tennessee politicians were “more interested in German shareholders than U.S. workers” during the three days of voting.
Face it, the President is wrestling with a 45 percent national approval rating and, when he tossed in his two cents’ worth in a way that was clearly designed to be leaked, it isn’t that big a stretch to believe the polarizing Prez may have inadvertently swayed a few emotional votes among the solidly-conservative work force. You can believe this – Obama’s approval rating is much less in Southeastern Tennessee than the national average and I’ll further venture his “outside influence” is every bit as notable on a given day as that of Bob Corker and Bill Haslam.
Union president Bob King continued to blame Senator Corker and Governor Haslam for their “unprecedented outside influence” over the weekend but no one has yet tagged our besieged Commander-in-Chief for his unwelcome part in the stinging 712-626 defeat. King said Sunday that Corker’s comments violated “the spirit of the (National Labor Relations Board)” but the retiring union boss admitted he wasn’t sure whether the former Chattanooga mayor “crossed a legal line” since Corker didn’t speak on behalf of Volkswagen.
Guess what? Barack didn’t speak on VW’s behalf, either. It’s no secret that Democrats seeking re-election in the mid-term are distancing themselves from the President. CNN reported Friday that Obama has dutifully promised to stay away from elections where he wouldn’t be helpful and, in the top 12 battleground states where Democrats are trying to wrestle away control of the House of Representatives, Obama’s approval marks are just 36 percent, this according to a CNN survey. How does that translate into the UAW defeat?
The best reason the union’s intense two-year effort failed may have been in an analysis in USA TODAY where Tom Walsh of the Detroit Free Press wrote succinctly, “The UAW failed to convince a majority of Chattanooga VW workers that their lives would be better with the UAW than without it.”
Walsh noted that “the lesson here is that the UAW, and American labor unions in general, are doomed unless they can make a more compelling case for the value proposition of union membership. Show how union workers’ lives will improve, how unions will help communities grow jobs – or become extinct.”
Walsh’s wise commentary added, “Call it what you will – a bad rap spread by smear tactics, or just a bad rap, self-inflicted – but, either way, the UAW and other labor unions are stuck with a serious perception problem.”
Obviously that perception is blatant; don’t look for any other foreign manufacturers to encourage the UAW like Volkswagen so curiously did. Germany’s Mercedes and BMW plants know they now carry the UAW’s hopes because the Japanese and Korean manufacturers in the United States openly detest the union, its unscrupulous tactics and lust of their employees’ U.S. dollars. As one insider smirked, “There is a reason Toyota is the No. 1 automaker in the world … and Lexus (made by Toyota) is the best car.”
Paul Barrett, a slanted Senior Writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, offered four blunt points in a lengthy column on Monday to “anyone needing more evidence of the union movement’s demise.”
His first, “If the UAW couldn’t win this one, what can they win?” pointed to the fact VW didn’t oppose unionization. He noted VW’s affection for worker-management councils and how a UAW partnership may have facilitated such an arrangement but “the defeat creates an enormous obstacle to labor’s ambition to organize at other foreign-owned auto plants in the South.”
Second, “Putting ideology and campaign finance first, political conservatives can take credit for crushing the UAW in Tennessee.” Barrett vented his rage and slammed state senator Bo Watson for condemning Volkswagen as “unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American.” The writer’s response? “Um, Bo? Everyone knows VW is German, not American; that doesn’t make the company an enemy of America. They are investing here, after all. And what exactly was unfair about letting workers decide for themselves whether or not to bring in a union?”
Barrett’s third blunt point – “Volkswagen comes out looking pretty darn good.” He wrote that VW said it will still find a way to set up a worker council and opined, “Despite the unwelcome meddling of Republican politicos, it also promised to try to work with state and local officials to expand the plant … sometimes (the management teams) do the right thing. Bravo, VW.”
And, last, “The legacy of Detroit continues to haunt unions.” The writer pointed to “one of the most potent arguments conservatives marshaled to vote ‘no’ was that a union would bring Detroit’s woes to Chattanooga and discourage local investment.” He even quoted VW worker Mike Jarvis’ comments from the New York Times: “Look what happened to the auto manufacturers in Detroit and how they struggled. They all shared one huge factor – the UAW,” Jarvis had said. “If you look at how the UAW’s membership has plunged, that shows they are doing a lot wrong.”
In summation, the writer Barrett conceded, “Jarvis has his recent labor history right. The UAW has lost 75 percent of its membership since 1979. That’s a lot of momentum to overcome – in Chattanooga, or anywhere else.”
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While I don’t share some of Barrett’s views, especially because he fails to understand the Southern culture and our repulsion of “outside influences” such as the UAW as well as his own, his allegations that “politicians such as Senator Bob Corker employed borderline dishonesty to sway workers” are not necessarily true.
He must understand that the Tennessee “politicos” involved during the Volkswagen voting were dutifully elected by many of the same people who voted against the UAW and their voice is more valuable to us than some union carpet-bagger. For him to write these “outsiders couldn’t give a hoot about the working conditions or benefits available to auto workers” is totally outlandish but that hardly matters.
My point is that the UAW outcome at Volkswagen did indeed have “the whole world watching” and that, while a sore loser may try to focus blame on “outside influences,” the real reason for the defeat was because those who voted grasped the obvious -- there was little-if-nothing for the Volkswagen employee to gain.