Union Suffers “Crushing Defeat”; Voters Getting Wise

From the Wall Street Journal:

The United Auto Workers union suffered a crushing defeat Friday, falling short in an election in which it seemed to have a clear path to organizing workers at Volkswagen AG’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The setback is a bitter defeat because the union had the cooperation of Volkswagen management and the aid of Germany’s powerful IG Metall union, yet it failed to win a majority among the plants 1,550 hourly workers.

Volkswagen workers rejected the union by a vote of 712 to 626. The defeat raises questions about the future of a union that for years has suffered from declining membership and influence, and almost certainly leaves its president, Bob King, who had vowed to organize at least one foreign auto maker by the time he retires in June, with a tarnished legacy.

If the union can’t win [in Chattanooga], it can’t win anywhere,” said Steve Silvia, a economics and trade professor at American University who has studied labor unions.

The union PR churned out the standard story of “outsiders” who “interfered” with the election. But the question is: Why did any such outside interference have enough influence to dissuade workers from unionizing?

The facts mentioned in the article might support a different idea about why the union did not win the election.

The election was also extraordinary because Volkswagen choose to cooperate closely with the UAW. Volkswagen allowed UAW organizers to campaign inside the factory—a step rarely seen in this or other industries.

“This is like an alternate universe where everything is turned upside down,” said Cliff Hammond, a labor lawyer at Nemeth Law PC in Detroit, who represents management clients but previously worked at the Service Employees International Union. “Usually, companies fight” union drives, he added.

And again:

The UAW had appeared to have strong chances in the election because both Volkswagen and the IG Metall union wanted the Chattanooga plant to have a works council, a formal committee of both union and nonunion employees who negotiate with management on day-to-day working matters at the plant.

Works councils are standard in German workplaces—almost all other Volkswagen facilities around the world have one. In the U.S., however, it appears to many labor-law experts that they can only be implemented legally if workers are represented by an outside union.

Since both Volkswagen and IG Metall have expressed a strong desire to have a works council in Chattanooga, the auto maker chose to work with the UAW. In addition to letting union representatives into the plant, Volkswagen kept members of management from expressing any views on the vote, and agreed to coordinate its public statements with the union during the election campaign.

This vote was essentially gift-wrapped for the union by Volkswagen,” Mr. Hammond, the labor lawyer, said.

This is where I think, if I were a worker who was open to voting for a union, I would dig in my heels. The whole point of a union is to protect the worker from the evil, exploitative business. Free individuals negotiating for wages on a free market are not enough, we are told, so the union must be allowed to do “collective bargaining.”

But that story, whatever might be said about it pro or con, falls apart when the employer is actively promoting the union. How can they be friends? At that point, workers have to wonder what VW is hoping to gain from the union. What are they expecting? Is the union going to protect the worker? Or is the union going to effectively serve as a way for the company to induce compliance in the workforce? The entire point of a union is called into question if a company wants its workers to unionize.

Of course, the Wall Street Journal analyzes this election as only a story about declining unions. That would be great but I hope it is more than that. I hope it is a story of voters getting skeptical about promises that are made to them, whether by corporate-union combines, or by politicians.