CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The failure of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to unionize employees at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee illustrates a cultural disconnect between a labor-friendly German company and anti-union sentiment in the South.
The multiyear effort to organize Volkswagen’s only U.S. plant was defeated during a three-day vote. The results, in which workers voted 712 to 626 against joining the union, was announced late Friday.
Some experts said the result is a blow to the UAW and that the VW plant was its best chance to organize a foreign-owned auto factory in the South, where there are 14 factories, eight built in the past decade. UAW President Bob King, whose chief goal was to unionize several of those plants before retiring in June, had viewed a win at the VW plant as pivotal if his once-mighty union was to gain numbers and strength after decades of decline.
For many workers, the main reason to unionize was to help VW achieve its goal of creating a German-style works council, a committee of salaried and blue-collar workers who develop policies on work rules, plant hours and other issues.
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Volkswagen, which has unions and works councils at virtually all of its 105 other plants, views these councils as vital for improving morale, cooperation and productivity.
Workers who voted against the union said that while they remain open to the creation of a works council at the plant, they were unwilling to risk the future of the Volkswagen factory that opened to great fanfare on the site of a former Army ammunition plant in 2011.
“Come on, this is Chattanooga, Tennessee,” said worker Mike Jarvis, who helped organize a fight against the UAW. “It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us,” he said, referring to the VW plant.
Jarvis, who hangs doors, trunk lids and hoods on cars, said workers also were worried about the union’s historical impact on Detroit automakers and the many plants that have been closed in the North.
“Look at every company that’s went bankrupt or shut down or had an issue,” he said. “What is the one common denominator with all those companies? UAW. We don’t need it.”
Pocketbook issues were also on opponents’ minds, Jarvis said. Workers were suspicious Volkswagen and the union might have already reached “cost-containment” agreements that could have led to a cut in their hourly pay rate to that made by entry-level employees with the Detroit Three automakers, he said.
The concern, he said, was that the UAW “was going to take the salaries in a backward motion, not in a forward motion,” said Jarvis, who makes about $20 an hour as he approaches his three-year anniversary at the plant.
The VW workers average about $19.50 an hour, about the same as the newer workers in the Detroit automakers’ lower tier, but about $9 an hour less than workers in Detroit’s upper tier.
The South’s anti-union traditions clearly hurt the UAW. Edward Hunter, a pro-union employee, said many workers were “hereditarily anti-union,” with such sentiments passed down between generations.
He noted that Chattanooga used to have scores of textile mills and metal foundries, many of them unionized. When they closed in recent decades — the textile mills because of foreign competition; the foundries because of pollution problems — many townspeople blamed labor unions, he said.
Southern Republicans were horrified when Volkswagen said it was engaging in talks with the UAW last year. Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who has been among the UAW’s most vocal critics, said at the time that Volkswagen would become a “laughingstock” in the business world if it welcomed the union to its plant.
Adding to the anti-union pressure, Bo Watson, a state senator who represents a Chattanooga suburb, said the Republican-controlled Legislature was unlikely to approve further subsidies to Volkswagen if the plant unionized. Some workers feared his threat would cause Chattanooga to lose a planned SUV line to a VW plant in Mexico.
The outcome of the vote surprised many. Last September, the UAW said, a majority of VW workers signed cards saying they wanted the UAW to represent them. King said his union was weighing legal action against what some union officials said was improper anti-union intimidation of VW’s workers.
Volkswagen wants to create a works council at the plant, but to do so, U.S. law requires the establishment of an independent union. Several workers who cast votes against the union said they still support the idea of a works council; they just don’t want to have to work through the UAW.
Volkswagen’s German management is accustomed to unions and works councils, which have been ingrained in its operations since the end of World War II. Labor interests that make up half of the company’s supervisory board have raised concerns the Chattanooga plant is alone among the automaker’s major factories worldwide without formal worker representation.
But in Tennessee, there’s little recent history of prominent manufacturing unions, and people are suspicious of them.
“This is an area of the country where union density is low,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues.
Still, because of the close margin, Shaiken believes the union would have won without statements from Corker and other Republican politicians that played to anti-union sentiment and cast doubt on the plant’s future with union representation. Those statements, he said, influenced spouses, relatives and neighbors as well as workers at the plant.
“You’ve got wives, husbands, family members. They hear these threats and they say, ‘What are you doing here? This is a risk,’ ” Shaiken said.
UAW leaders said they’re evaluating their next steps. King, the union president, wasn’t prepared to say after the vote whether the union would try to take legal action due to what he called unprecedented outside interference.
Devin Gore, an assembly-line worker who favored the union, said he was too upset to talk about the loss Saturday. He’s not giving up on one day being represented by the UAW.
“I’m going to be walking into the plant with a UAW shirt on come Monday,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll stop trying until we get it.”
After the vote, Frank Fischer, chief executive of Volkswagen Chattanooga, said he remained intent on finding a way to create a works council, saying the workers had not decided against one.
“Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council,” he said. “Our goal continues to be to determine the best method for establishing a works council in accordance with the requirements of U.S. labor law.”
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.