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Monday, December 5, 2016

by Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

Turning more than 1,500 painters, inspectors, tradespeople and maintenance workers at a Tennessee auto plant into union members was supposed to be relatively easy for the United Auto Workers union, experts on organized labor said.

The effort would have created the first union at a foreign-owned automaker in the historically anti-union South — and raised the morale of a union that has seen membership plummet from 1.5 million in 1979 to 380,000 last year.

But 53 percent of workers at the three-year-old Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga rejected a unionization bid, giving pro-union autoworkers from Michigan to Mississippi a reason to squirm and providing what experts said was the latest sign that conservative efforts and the threat of job losses were crippling U.S. labor unions.

UAW officials suggested that they may challenge the 712-626 loss, announced late Friday after a three-day vote. UAW President Bob King quickly blamed the “deeply disappointing” defeat on “unprecedented interference” by Republican politicians and political groups who said unionization would result in Volkswagen losing state subsidies and pushing production of a new crossover vehicle to Mexico instead of Chattanooga.

Workers who voted to unionize said they were sold on promises of job security and a louder voice at Volkswagen headquarters in Germany. They expressed frustration that fellow workers were apparently scared off by the threat of lost jobs — and that 165 workers declined to vote at all.

The lead opposition group warned that the UAW would generate disaster, pointing to struggling Detroit automakers and their workers, who had to accept stinging concessions because of the companies’ financial troubles.

“The UAW tried to promise significant wages, and I think that was shown as a simple, unfillable campaign promise,” said Maury Nicely, an attorney involved with the anti-union effort. “I like to think information got out to the employees, and they saw what was going on was just all false promises.”

The defeat in Chattanooga “significantly diminishes” the UAW’s chances of forming unions at any of the 10 or so foreign-owned auto factories in the South, said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry expert at Cornell University’s Worker Institute. Since 2011, similar unionization efforts were launched at Nissan plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.

Many labor experts were stunned by the result because Volkswagen did not publicly oppose the UAW’s effort and has had an amicable relationship with labor organizations for some time.

The Chattanooga plant, which produces the Passat, remains Volkswagen’s only major facility worldwide without a labor organization. And a company official said after the vote that the company remained committed to finding a way to bring a so-called works council to the facility.

Under such a system, union officials negotiate compensation and big-ticket items while leaving it to a group of local workers –the works council — to formally discuss day-to-day issues with managers.

John James, a longtime management consultant for German companies and now a professor at Pace University in New York, said that at German companies an office as small as 11 employees elects a three-person works council.