Specter of Detroit haunts UAW inroads in the South

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry

DETROIT — Is the United Auto Workers union doomed?

That may be a legitimate question, given the failure of last week’s organizing vote at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Ever since he was elected UAW president four years ago, Bob King has made organizing a Southern “transplant” — a plant run by a foreign-based automaker — a priority.

The Chattanooga plant seemed to be the union’s best shot. Volkswagen officials stayed neutral. They did say they wanted to form a “works council,” something common in Germany, that would give workers a voice in major decisions.

That’s something that in this country legally requires a union, and the UAW said it was open to the possibility. Union officials talked as if they were finally going to win an organizing election in the South.

But when the results were in, the UAW lost. More than 53 percent of the workers voted against the UAW, in a defeat most analysts called devastating.

There is no doubt the union badly needed a win. But one longtime analyst says the naysayers are over-reacting.

“Disappointing? Without question,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor issues. “But it should be seen as more setback than rout.

“The UAW is not dead, and is not about to go out of existence,” Mr. Shaiken, a Detroit native, said. “What happened is that the entire Republican Party of [Tennessee] made defeating the union a top priority.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, perhaps the strongest opponent of the 2008-09 federal bailouts that saved General Motors and Chrysler, campaigned hard against the union drive to organize VW.

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax, anti-government zealot, paid for sensational anti-union billboards near the Volkswagen facility. One pictured the ruins of Detroit’s old Packard plant, which closed in the 1950s, with the slogan: “Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW.”

That was not exactly fair, because nobody has blamed the union for the old luxury car brand’s demise. But it may have caused fear among VW workers.

What may have had more impact, though, were charges that the union only wanted to channel money, in the form of workers’ dues, to the Democratic Party. Tennessee has become an intensely Republican state.

Mr. Shaiken thinks this is likely to be a temporary setback. “I think it will cause the union to regroup and rededicate itself, and they can try again in a year,” he said.

Nobody is saying the union is dead — yet. But it is undeniable that the UAW has been in decline for a long time.

Today, the UAW has fewer than 390,000 members, far down from the historic high of 1.6 million in the 1970s. They represent a steadily dwindling share of a greatly diminished corps of auto assembly line workers. Recent years have seen setback after setback.

UAW leadership came under special criticism in Michigan for pouring millions of dollars into an ill-advised 2012 attempt to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.

That initiative was badly defeated by voters. In retaliation, the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature enacted right-to-work legislation. In the long term, that could cripple union finances by allowing workers not to pay dues.

Nationally, perhaps most devastating was the union’s acceptance, years ago, of a two-tier wage system. Most newly hired workers now get a base wage that is only slightly more than half the $28 an hour that longtime assembly line workers make.

Workers at the higher level have had their wages frozen for years. The new second-tier workers generally do not make enough to buy a house, or even one of the new cars they are making.

That wage is less than the average wage at nonunion auto plants in the South. Union leaders vow that the two-tier system is temporary, but there are few signs of it disappearing.

In recent years, the UAW has made minor strides in organizing nonautomotive workers, including Sierra Club employees, and, perhaps oddest of all, 6,000 or so post-doctoral scholars at the University of California’s 10 campuses.

It is hard to see how the UAW can sustain itself long-term. That is, unless it begins to have success organizing outside the North, and at plants other than those run by the Detroit Three.

‚óŹ Clarification: Last week’s column on the finally passed farm bill indicated that several hundred thousand people would lose all their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits because some states, notably New York, allowed them to list a utility bill they don’t actually pay on their food-stamp applications. In fact, while their benefits will be reduced to the amount for which they legitimately qualify, few will lose all assistance.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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