Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) — I asked Rich Yeselson, a former union strategist and author of this excellent article on the United Automobile Workers’ failed effort to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to answer a few questions, via email, about the meaning of the Chattanooga vote and the future of unionism in the U.S. Here is a lightly edited transcript.
Question: Who lost in Chattanooga last week? The UAW? Volkswagen? The plant workers?
Answer: The UAW was clearly the big loser. Its long-term project to break through at a foreign automaker’s Southern plant failed again — this time with a carefully wrought strategy and the company, effectively, on its side. Victories in social struggle signify competence and power; failure their opposite. So this makes every other organizing campaign that much tougher. The Chattanooga plant is an anomaly for VW, but it will be fine. As for the workers, a union (and the works council that would have come with it) would have given them a collective voice in the workplace on every major issue. But the majority voted no– we’ll see if they later regret that vote.
Q: Did workers at the plant conclude that the union is so weak in this economy that joining it can’t provide real benefits? If so, is that perception correct?
A: We don’t know that for certain yet, but some anecdotal post-vote evidence seems to indicate that a lot of the “no” voters didn’t think the UAW had much juice anyway, so why join them? The workers saw the two-tier wage structure — with starting wages in Detroit now similar to non-union starting wages in the South — that the UAW accepted at the Big Three auto companies after the recession. They saw the UAW’s obvious eagerness to project a tone of cooperation with VW, rather than hint at any productive antagonism.
Capital mobility obviously weakens labor’s economic leverage in the manufacturing sector, where facilities can be moved to lower-wage countries. (That’s why the German and Japanese companies moved to the low-wage South in the first place.) The paradox, however, is that if workers reject the UAW because of its perceived weakness, then the UAW might disappear altogether. If it does, the transplant companies in the South will feel no obligation to sustain wages and benefits, which are comparable to the union rate precisely in order to keep unions out. So the vulnerability of the union could become the vulnerability of the workers who disdain the union, too.
Q: Is it right to view this as another landmark on a long, hard road to irrelevance? Or do you see anything positive for the UAW or unions in general to extract from this?
A: It’s trite to say, but history really is unknowable — we can declare something a defeat, but we can’t yet know if it’s a landmark. In the early 1930s, John L. Lewis was beset by enemies within the mineworkers union, and was being booed and insulted by his own membership when he tried to speak. By 1937, he was on the cover of Time magazine, the leader of a massive and growing labor movement and the second most powerful person in the country.
The UAW and labor, broadly, can relearn one important lesson from this defeat: Working people, through the institutions of unions, can potentially still throw a lot of economic, political and cultural weight around. And that worries economic and political elites. The almost hysterical conservative leadership of Tennessee, including U.S. Senator Bob Corker, fears the power of unions. If unions were truly “irrelevant” there wouldn’t have been so much anxiety coursing through the low-wage South that the UAW might win, and that a win might lead to other wins. But the workers have to want to unionize, even if they are being intimidated. Otherwise Corker will rest easy.