Type to search

Where Do American Unions Go From Chattanooga?

Bloomberg View Memo Pad Politics

Where Do American Unions Go From Chattanooga?


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.



  1. Dominick Vila February 22, 2014

    Labor union will only come back when the average blue collar worker realizes that supporting the “right to work” chimera is tantamount to exploitation, and that their decision undermined the ability of the institutions that brought about overtime pay, paid sick leave, paid vacation, and livable wages to continue to fight for the right to get fair remuneration for our work and a better future for our children.

    1. 2010HDSTGLIDE February 22, 2014

      The government is the best protector of the worker.

      1. whodatbob February 22, 2014

        What are you smoking?

        1. 2010HDSTGLIDE February 22, 2014

          I thought someone would get a kick out of this.

          1. Dominick Vila February 22, 2014

            The government helps in establishing standards, enacting legislation, and protecting worker’s rights, but when companies and union members sit down at a bargaining table the outcome depends more on how critical the work is and how effective the union reps are. I was in management, and participated in many bargaining unit meetings. Believe me, our union members would not have gotten what they got had it not been for the unions.

      2. daniel bostdorf February 23, 2014

        sarcasm noted LOL

      3. Allan Richardson February 23, 2014

        The government may not be the BEST protector of the worker, but when unions are overpowered by management, the government may be the LAST RESORT protector of the worker. That’s why the 1% and corporate executives want to get government out of the picture; they are afraid it may be TOO efficient at protecting their workers FROM THEM.

    2. sealbeams February 22, 2014

      I agree, although I am a retired union member from a “right to work” state. But you are correct. “Right to Work” needs to be abolished. I think unions can help get this accomplished.

      1. STMBT February 22, 2014

        I to am a retired (10 yrs) union member who worked in the building and construction trades. I have been a union member for 50 yrs now and I still belong to my union. most people really do not understand what right to work means. they don’t understand that it really means that they have the right to work for LESS!! unions have alway fought to stop right to work laws because they basically take away a workers rights. these right wing rethuglicans have had a plan do eliminate unions altogether since Ronald Reagan paved the way with the Air Controllers. and I have to say that they have done a pretty good job. so far. but I do belive unions will make a comeback! when working people realize that unless they organize as a group they will never have any rights, wages will be stagnant, (like now days) safety on the job will be pretty much be non existant no pensions, and no benifits at ALL!
        Watch the rethuglicans vote against raising the minnimum wage when it comes up. they wiil claim that raising the minnimum will cost companys to much and will cause them to lay of some of it’s employees, which will make unimployment rise. which this claim is FALSE! it was of unions that created the middle class, a 40 hr work week, overtime pay, osha to protect workers from work hazards coffee breaks, paid vacations, sick leave. and most of all retirement plans “PENSIONS” people ought to educate themselves on why unions were created in the 1st place. espcially the people in Tennesee after all it was the coal miners that decided that they had to organize if they were to have any rights as well as a decent wage and working conditions.

        1. sealbeams February 22, 2014

          Good comment and well said. Thanks.

  2. howa4x February 22, 2014

    It’s hard to gage since the south has no history of unions, other than textiles. Companies have always took advantage of an under educated southern work force. When textile workers organized the companies just shifted production to low wage countries. I think that the pressure put on by the Tenn. governor scared people into not voting and union concessions made them feel that the UAW wasn’t really getting them anything that they don’t already have, so why risk anything.

    1. sealbeams February 22, 2014

      And Corker.

      1. howa4x February 22, 2014

        True Dat!!!

    2. Barbara Morgan February 23, 2014

      The South has unions in other companies besides textiles. There are public employees union, Fire and Police, and transit bus businesses that the city owns but is ran by a managing company like it was a private businesses and other types of working places and some coal mines are union.There is just not enough of them and their unions don’t have well known names. At the VW plant not only was the employees being pressured by Republican Governor Bill Haslam to vote no they were threatened by state Republican senator Bo Watson, he told them the state legislature might decided to take back the tax cuts and other perks given to VW when they brought the 1600 jobs to Chattanooga, 1600 jobs that are badly in the state, and probably would not do anything to help the VW if they decided to bring a 2nd car to be produced in Chattanooga. According US Republican Senator Bob Corker said he had been assured that if the the union was rejected that VW would be producing a SUV at the Chattanooga Plant. Also these workers at the VW plant were bombard by anti union billboards placed all over Chattanooga and surrounding areas and anti union ads on the air waves paid for by Oliver Norquist’s Koch brothers financed political organization. The workers had pressure coming from everywhere to vote no union, they were scared I think into voting no. There was only 87 more no votes than there were yes votes and 166 employees didn’t vote. Before the voting began VW asked Corker and the rest not make any comments that could influence the vote. Democrats did as VW asked but as my post shows the Republicans stuck their noses and mouths into a private business business when they pressured the workers. Corker has admitted that he made his comments because he didn’t like the AUW but still insists he was given assuage that Chattanooga would be get the SUV if the union was voted down. VW said that he was not given that assurance by anyone at VW like he said he was when he first made the statement. Now he is saying the assurance did not come from any one at the Chattanooga plant. Corker needs to brought up on ethic charges in the US Senate, Bo Watson needs to be arrested and charged with threatening the workers at the plant, Haslam needs to charged with interference, and Oliver Norquist and his organization needs to have its tax exemption revoked for interfering in a private business and its employees right to have a vote without his outside interference. Norquist also should be charged with intimidation of the workers, as should Corker, Haslam and especially Watson. I have been told that several private citizens of Tennessee have emailed Harry Reid demanding that Corker be brought up on ethic charges and demanding to know why there hasn’t been any out rage shown by the National and local Democratic party over this incident. I live in Tennessee and know people that have relatives that work at the VW plant. I have asked myself why the local Democratic Party hasn’t been up in arms over this? Haven’ t received any answer.

      1. howa4x February 23, 2014

        Interesting post. Harry Reid won’t bring him up because that is just politics. The National labor relations board could bring charges against elected officials, and they are investigating. If they charge Corker than Reid can censure him. Why do people in Tenn keep voting for people against their own interests? Corker is definitely anti middle class so why keep electing him?

        1. Barbara Morgan February 24, 2014

          The Democratic candidate that was running against Corker in 2012 turned out to a big hater of gays, blacks and other minorities than Corker and the independents that ran against Corker didn’t have the money he did to campaign. The Democratic candidate after he was found out received no campaign money from the National Democratic party and none from the state Democratic party after his first campaign speech after winning the Democratic primary/ I voted for an independent candidate but a lot of voters didn’t cast a vote in the Senate race at all. 2012 campaign is the first and only time I ever heard a candidate call them self a Blue Republican, he was an independent candidate. It looks like the Democratic Party has already decided to not try and kick the Republicans out of the governor’s office and the legislature here in Tennessee because if they were going to try win this state back I think we would have heard them condemning the Republicans and been calling for investigation by the Justice Department because Watson’s threat and the IRA because of Norquist use of donated money to interfere in a business matter that was between a private company and its workers instead nothing out of Washington nor of Nashville where state Democratic headquarters are located. Tennessee was a Democratic controlled state until the 2010 elections Republicans came into power because of their promises of job, jobs and jobs, which like all other Republicans did after they got into office they promptly forgot about that promise and starting busting the teachers union and the job protection for teachers that union afforded the teachers and trying to bust other public employees unions, they were only able to bust the teacher’s union which has really hurt the education of our children. Many of the good teachers left the teaching profession after the union was destroyed completely saying they could not teach under the circumstances they would have to work now. I hate to admit but there Tennesseans that are big time racists and they have big time bank accounts to push their hate for President Obama with and many others that are racists or just plain believe every lie the Republicans tell them.

          1. howa4x February 24, 2014

            There is a long history of hatred in Tenn. isn’t that where the Klu Klux Klan started?

          2. Barbara Morgan February 24, 2014

            Yes the Klu Klux Klan started here and was partially destroyed here. Klu Klux Klan was and is an evil organization yet when I was a very young girl there was a cross burning at a white man’s home and he was whipped for abusing his wife and children, according to my dad when we asked about the burned cross.

          3. howa4x February 25, 2014

            Hatred is the hardest thing to get rid of but I do wish you well in your struggle.

  3. sealbeams February 22, 2014

    If the middle class wants to be the middle class again, Organized Labor is the only possibility. As a retired teamster, it worked for me. It is impossible for one person to negotiate with big companies with any success because one person has no leverage. The company makes the rules. In the past Unions went to far. Now it has gone the other way. I think Unions will gain strength again. Its our only hope.

    1. daniel bostdorf February 23, 2014

      dead on…

  4. charles king February 22, 2014

    Unions in America have to start doing some (Critical Thinking) like What ? the hell is going on in America, When? you can not get a minimum wage-law of ten dollars passed. Who? is denying this working person pay raise this is the same thing with Obama’s Care Who? are these people Who? vote NO against another American for What? reason Would? one American Not want something Good for another American, you know What? I mean. Think People something is wrong with our system of governing because MONIES has taking control over some of our Representives but this can be fixed with some critical thinking, your Voting power is still Superme Which? ones of these Party people are not doing their Job get them out of office your Vote and the country”s Democracy will restore the UNIONS back to their place of protecting the workers rights. We the People just have to get MONIES out of our government How? do we do that by checking up on our elected officials and see that they are voting for the welfare of the country instead of voting for someother cause if so then VOTE them OUT, simple as that. Thank You are the magic words with me. Labor unions beware of Plutocracts running around in small-towns USA. Mr. C. E. KING

  5. wiprotester February 23, 2014

    We need labor unions now more than ever. It’s really a shame that many people don’t see that. Can’t believe the vote was no. Many folks need to wake up – the little guy is getting screwed over and over. Unions are one of the few ways, if not the only way, that workers can have a voice and improve their situation. An individual that isn’t super wealthy or isn’t a corporationperson (ha!) does not have the $$$ to buy what they want from politicians.

  6. Barbara Morgan February 23, 2014

    I hope that VW doesn’t do its workers like Nissan is said be doing to its workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. The workers there voted no union and since that vote many of their jobs have become a part time jobs and benefits have been lost. If true Nissan broke its word to the workers at the plant, they told them that voting against a union would not cause any changes in work, benefits and so on they would remain the same.

  7. jointerjohn February 24, 2014

    I’ve been a union man for forty-four years. Shop Steward in two international unions, a Contract Committeeman numerous times and organized two non-union workplaces in which I was employed. Part of the reason unions are in decline in the United States is a growth in the “every-man-for-himself” attitude of many workers. I hate to have to say it because it feels much better to blame management and republicans, but few American workers today understand the concept of solidarity. There was a time when companies found it very difficult to entice scab workers to cross a picket line. Today a striking worker can get stampeded by scabs. There was an earlier time when workers would have rejected two-tier wage schemes on the basis of equal work for equal pay. Now it’s “as long as I still get my rate screw those new employees coming in”. Then fifteen years later those younger employees vote to discontinue the health care coverage for retirees for the same selfish reasons. In the forties and fifties very few workers would have opted to be
    “fair share” employees and not pay their full union dues and hold
    membership. Why? Its just not the way to behave among your fellow workers. We have become an increasingly self-centered people in many aspects of our civic lives, and the decline of union membership is only one symptom of that disease.

    Oh yeah, and the increasingly anti-union messages coming from behind church pulpits in the past fifty years hasn’t exactly helped either.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.