Why Did Tennessee Autoworkers Vote against Joining Union When VW Didn’t Oppose Them?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Autoworkers in Tennessee (photo: Erik Schelzig, AP)

With just three-quarters of the membership it had at its peak in 1979, the United Auto Workers (UAW) hoped to start turning things around by unionizing an auto plant in the South for the first time. But despite no opposition from Volkswagen (VW), the factory’s owner, employees in the Tennessee plant rejected the UAW’s effort to join the union.


In a closely watched election, workers voted against becoming part of UAW, 712 to 626.


Turnout wasn’t a problem, as 89% of eligible employees turned out to vote.


VW didn’t voice concerns about unionizing, and even allowed UAW representatives access to the factory to speak with workers.


But there was plenty of opposition from Republican politicians in Tennessee and other anti-union groups that warned unionizing would not be in the workers’ best interests.


There was GOP Gov. Bill Haslam, who said auto parts suppliers would avoid setting up shop in Chattanooga if the local plant went union.


Bo Watson, a Republican state senator who represents a Chattanooga suburb, said the GOP-controlled legislature would likely oppose further subsidies to Volkswagen if the plant unionized.


But the most startling remark came from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the former mayor of Chattanooga, who publicly declared during the three days of voting by employees that VW executives promised to expand the factory’s production line as long as the union movement was defeated.


“Needless to say, I am thrilled,” Corker said in a statement after the results were disclosed.


Mark Mix, president of the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, hailed the outcome in a press release: “If UAW union officials cannot win when the odds are so stacked in their favor, perhaps they should re-evaluate the product they are selling to workers.”


Some of the workers who voted “no” on joining the UAW echoed that sentiment. “We felt like we were already being treated very well by Volkswagen in terms of pay and benefits and bonuses,” Sean Moss, a worker who voted against the UAW, told Reuters. “We also looked at the track record of the UAW. Why buy a ticket on the Titanic?”


The vote was characterized as a major defeat for the UAW, whose president, Bob King, has sworn to expand his union by organizing American workers in southern auto factories.


“We are outraged at the outside interference in this election. It’s never happened in this country before that a U.S. senator, a governor, a leader of the house, a leader of the legislature here threatened the company with those incentives, threatened workers with the loss of product,” King told The New York Times.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Loss at Volkswagen Plant Upends Union's Plan for U.S. South (by Bernie Woodall, Reuters)

Defeat of Auto Union in Tennessee Casts Its Strategy Into Doubt (by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times)

All Eyes on Chattanooga: VW’s Workers Are Deciding the Future of Unions in the South (by Lydia Depillis, Washington Post)

Bo Watson Says VW May Lose State Help If The UAW Is Voted In At Chattanooga Plant; McCormick Urges Workers To Reject Union; Corker To Hold Press Conference; Democrats Respond (by Hollie Webb, The Chattanoogan)

Boeing Launches First Non-Union Airplane (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

For German Carmakers, U.S. Workers are a Bargain (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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