In what was billed as the biggest American labor battle of the new millennium, employees at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga gave a thumbs down to the United Automobile Workers representing them.
The election, which was conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, began Wednesday and ended Friday. The unofficial results, which have yet to be certified by NLRB, were 712 against UAW and 626 voting in favor of the union representing them.
Volkswagen’s corporate leaders had said they were content with UAW organizing their Chattanooga facility in order to establish a German-style “works council” like those that exist in other VW plants outside the United States. Both VW and UAW — as well as most labor observers — agreed that because “company unions” are outlawed under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the works councils are likely illegal in the U.S. unless employees are unionized.
After the results of the election were announced, Frank Fischer, CEO and chairman of Volkswagen Chattanooga, said, “Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant.”
“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 to meet VW America’s production needs and serve our employees’ interests,” he said.
The VW vote marks a pretty clear victory for Republican Tennessee U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, at least in the short run. He has been a committed foe of UAW moving into Chattanooga. While mayor of Chattanooga, Corker was involved with enticing VW to come to the region.
“Needless to say, I am thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen and for our community and its future,” Corker said on his Twitter account following announcement of the vote results.
Over the past week Corker has all but promised that VW will be expanding its workforce if UAW is defeated, even as company officials were making no such statements.
VW is currently considering where to make a new sport utility vehicle that it plans to start selling in North America beginning in 2016. Chattanooga is considered to have a good chance of getting responsibility for assembling the SUV, which would add more work at the plant, boost job security and generally be an economic boon to Southeast Tennessee. However, a plant in Mexico is also being considered as well.
If Mexico ends up getting the SUV instead of Chattanooga, Corker could find himself in dangerously hot political waters.
Supporters of unionization — in particular, Tennessee Democrats and UAW itself — were angered by what they saw as Republican interference, “intimidation” and threats of political retribution against VW and its workers in the run-up to the vote.
In addition to comments from Corker, who’d said earlier this month that he’d be clamming up the week of the vote, powerful Republicans in both the state House and Senate made clear they’re no fans of the Detroit-based, Democrat-friendly union. GOP lawmakers intimated that they might not be feeling too charitable with future taxpayer-financed giveaways of the sort VW initially secured by agreeing to come to Tennessee if VW workers were now to invite UAW into the plant.
“Unfortunately, politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that that would grow jobs in Tennessee,” said Gary Casteel, who directs organizing in the South for UAW.
Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who had been particularly critical of Republicans for suggesting unionization might come at the cost of further state aid, reiterated his accusations of dirty tactics Friday night.
“While we respect the decision made by Volkswagen workers, the result does not excuse the outrageous and unprecedented conduct by Tennessee’s Republican elected officials,” Turner said in an emailed statement. “The intimidation tactics and coercive efforts should be condemned, regardless of the outcome tonight. Workers deserved the right to vote without being pressured by outside special interests and elected officials, but that did not happen.”
Republicans have argued that UAW is in fact an outsider, too. Gov. Bill Haslam and key supporters in the Legislature, like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, argued that workers in the VW plant were being shielded by VW from an open and vigorous debate about the pros and cons of unionization.
After the vote a spokesman for the governor said Haslam “is pleased with the outcome and looks forward to working with the company on future growth in Tennessee.”
The vote in Chattanooga was seen as something of a bellwether for organized labor’s chances of getting traction in the right-to-work South, where unions have traditionally been viewed with suspicion. A Washington Post headline Thursday proclaimed: “All eyes on Chattanooga: VW’s workers are deciding the future of unions in the South.”
The Post article noted also that UAW gaining purchase in Chattanooga might buoy the besieged Tennessee Democratic Party’s hopes for a resurgence. Indeed, the “ferocity” exhibited by Republicans speaking out against unionization as the vote drew near was perhaps rooted in “the knowledge that the UAW has historically supported Democrats, and could bolster the ailing liberal party if it got established in Tennessee, where union density is actually on the upswing after years of decline,” suggested the Post‘s reporter.
But the hopes of both Democrats and UAW were doused Friday.
Tweeted one reporter who trekked to the Scenic City to cover the vote for the union-friendly magazine, In These Times: “A hard cold freezy rain falling in Chattanooga tonite – feels like somebody died maybe the labor movement in the south.”