Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

February 23, 2014

Jack Lessenberry: UAW's future could be in question

Is the United Auto Workers union doomed?

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

Ever since he was elected the UAW’s 10th president four years ago, Bob King has made organizing a southern “transplant” — an auto plant run by a foreign-based automaker — a top priority.

The Chattanooga plant seemed the union’s best shot. Volkswagen officials stayed studiously 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 had lost, and the vote wasn’t very close. 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 said the naysayers were overreacting.

“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. What happened is that the entire Republican Party of the state made defeating the union a top priority,” said Shaiken, himself a Detroit native. There’s evidence there is truth in that.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, perhaps the strongest opponent of the 2008-09 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 featured the ruins of Detroit’s old Packard plant, which closed in the 1950s, with the slogan “Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW.”

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