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.”
That was not exactly fair, since nobody has ever blamed the union for the old luxury car’s demise. But it may have caused fears among VW workers. What may have had more impact 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. President Obama did worse there in 2012 than Walter Mondale did in 1984, when Democrats lost 49 of 50 states.
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. “The UAW isn’t dead.”
Nobody is saying it is — yet. But it is undeniable that the autoworkers union has been in decline for a long time.
Today, the UAW has fewer than 390,000 members, far down from a historic high of 1.6 million in the 1970s. They represent a steadily dwindling share of a greatly diminished force of auto assembly line workers. Recent years have seen setback after setback.
Union leadership came under special criticism in Michigan, for pouring millions into an ill-advised 2012 attempt to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.
That was badly defeated by the voters, and in retaliation the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature enacted right-to-work legislation within weeks, something that, long-term, could potentially cripple union finances by allowing workers not to pay dues.
Nationally, perhaps most devastating was the union’s acceptance, some years ago, of a two-tier wage level, under which most newly-hired workers get a base wage that is only slightly more than half the $28 per hour longtime assembly-line workers make.
Workers at the higher level have had their wages frozen for some 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, in fact, less than the average wage at non-union auto plants in the South. Union leaders vow that the two-tier system is only temporary, but there are few signs of it disappearing.
Given all that, quite apart from political pressures, it is easy to suspect that many Volkswagen workers at the Chattanooga plant couldn’t see a whole lot of benefit from joining the union.
In recent years, the UAW has made some minor strides in organizing some non-automotive workers, including Sierra Club employees, and, perhaps oddest of all, some 6,000 or so post-doctoral scholars at the University of California’s 10 campuses.
Pretty much any new members are welcome these days. But despite Harley Shaiken’s optimism, with right-to-work settling in in the heart of the domestic auto industry, it is hard to see how the UAW can sustain itself long-term. That is, unless it begins to have some success organizing outside the north, and at plants other than those run by the Detroit Three.
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 assistance applications. In fact, while their benefits will be reduced to the amount for which they legitimately qualify, few will lose all assistance.