UAW’s Devastating Defeat in Tennessee: Four Blunt Points

by Paul M. Barrett, BusinessWeek  |  published on February 17, 2014

As if anyone needed more evidence of the union movement’s demise, a United Auto Workers defeat Friday in Tennessee illustrated organized labor’s profound weakness in America. Employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga rejected UAW membership by a vote of 712-626. Consider these four blunt points:

1. If the UAW couldn’t win this one, what can they win? Volkswagen didn’t even oppose unionization. The German carmaker likes to sponsor cooperative worker-management councils at its factories, and formal UAW participation could have facilitated that arrangement. Still, a majority of employees said they didn’t want the UAW representing them. The defeat creates an enormous obstacle to labor’s ambition to organize at other foreign-owned auto plants in the South.

2. Putting ideology and campaign finance first, political conservatives can take credit for crushing the UAW in Tennessee. Republican politicians and Washington-based conservative activists such as antitax guru Grover Norquist drove the campaign to oppose unionization. These outsiders couldn’t give a hoot about the working conditions or benefits available to auto workers. The conservatives want to do anything they can to diminish union muscle—especially campaign spending—in state and national elections. Bo Watson, a GOP state senator in Tennessee, articulated the scorched-earth, culture-war strategy. He condemned Volkswagen as “unfair, unbalanced, and quite frankly, un-American” for taking a neutral position on unionization. Um, Bo? Everyone knows VW is German, not American; that doesn’t make the company an enemy of America. They are investing here, after all. And what exactly was unfair about letting workers decide for themselves whether or not to bring in a union?

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