Grassroots Commentary

Sing Me a Sad Song

Bill Franklin · Feb. 24, 2014

What do you call an election for union representation whose balloting went on for three days, whose union and company leaders wanted union representation, an election with Federal law heavily stacked in favor of the union, but whose workers – wooed for three years at a cost of $5 million – voted against union representation? A disaster. That’s what I’d call it.

Well, that’s what happened in the UAW’s first attempt to unionize workers in the 3-year old VW plant in Chattanooga last week. It was a Russian-style one-candidate (UAW) election that tried an end run around secret balloting with a card check phoney election until workers called the UAW’s hand.

Still, so convinced of a union win, the high fives were already slapping, the champagne corks were popping, and UAW president Robert King was headed to a victory party in Chattanooga. That is, until retired circuit court judge Samuel Payne announced the vote count. The UAW lost the election 712 to 626 – close, but no cigar.

In the days following the announcement of the election results, editorials and articles tried to augur the meaning of the election outcome. Some opined that the workers were confused that this was an election for union representation, thinking instead that they were voting to install a European-style worker council that would allow them a say in how the plant was governed. I find that hard to believe. I find it harder to believe that the UAW would spend three years and millions of dollars to win the right for workers to represent themselves in council meetings, supplanting the historic role of union negotiation.

Former Mayor of Chattanooga and now Senator Bob Corker who was instrumental in getting the VW plant built in his city certainly thought the election was for union representation because he inserted himself into the pre-election lobbying to voice his opposition. Obama thought it was an organizing vote, voicing his support for union representation. This was a high stakes big deal for both sides of a unionization attempt.

The defeat under US labor law means the UAW must keep its distance from Chattanooga VW for a year before another attempt to unionize the plant. Yet interestingly, despite their stinging defeat, the UAW has vowed to “fight back” – a curious comment from an organization whose “customer” isn’t buying its product. Fight back against whom? Everyone but a majority of the workers seemed to be on the union’s side.

This election outcome wasn’t an isolated rejection of labor activism. Unions have had declining membership in the private sector for 35 years, now down to only 400,000 members – a stunning loss of 75%. In order to “fight back” against the rejection of his product, UAW president Bob King has traveled the industrial world attempting to organize unions in various countries to act together in reasserting that unions are still a force to be reckoned with.

Lots of luck. Thanks to the baggage of feckless management and an over-paid unionized workforce, the American automobile industry’s has lost significant market share to foreign car makers who listened to the voice of the customers and gave them more car for less money. Foreign car makers employed technology to drive down the labor cost per unit to half that of an American car. Instead of developing a healthy sense of self-preservation, the union instead fought labor-saving technology with the zeal of Luddites and predictably the recent market share of American cars has dropped almost to 30%. Ten different foreign car makers have now populated plants in the US. Their output coupled with imports produced in other countries now account for two-thirds of the cars we buy.

If King hopes to resuscitate the union movement in America, he knows he would have to go after the foreign car makers with US plants. That was his strategy in attempting to bring the 1,550 VW workers in Chattanooga into the UAW fold.  King courted IG Metall, the powerful German labor union, to pressure VW management so it would cooperate in the unionization of the Tennessee plant. VW was to be the first of several union targets in the UAW plan to “invade the south,” which has been historically hostile to carpet-bagging unions and therefore historically attractive to companies seeking a stable, non-union workforce. After successfully unionizing VW the next targets were to be the Mercedes plant in Alabama, the Nissan plant in Mississippi, the BMW plant in South Carolina, and Texas – that vast greenfield of union opportunity with almost three million more wage earners than New York state but only a fourth of the union members. Well, at least that was the plan. Reality looked different.

A Chattanooga victory also would have boosted the UAW’s strong-arm tactics with the Detroit automakers whose companies have been decimated by years of supporting the union tapeworm. King had targeted the “unfairness” of entry-level Detroit auto workers earning only $15 per hour to watch robots assemble cars, while those with seniority make $29 for essentially the same “work.” The latter have just been watching robots longer. Both wages are the consequence of prior union contracts ($29) and bailout concessions ($15). Relative to the auto output of foreign-owned US-based carmakers, however, Detroit is a skinny rabbit getting skinnier. Still, the gall of it all! Michigan, the home of the UAW, has become a right to work state! Maybe King thinks it was time to teach these Michiganders a thing or two. They are getting too big for their breeches letting people opt out of union membership.

Failing to win at Chattanooga, the UAW now loses clout in Detroit. Unless it can represent workers in one or two other foreign-owned US-based automakers and get wage increases for their workforce, it has weakened its leverage to negotiate wage increases and demand dues from members. The VW failure is even more striking because of the support it got from management, including plant access to pitch workers – a privilege not granted to union opponents.

This defeat comes on the heels of union thugs getting their south ends kicked so badly by Scott Walker a couple of years ago in the Wisconsin teacher’s union brouhaha. Unions are getting a bad rep that they can’t deliver for workers. ‘Course after union dues to support the fat cats like Bob King, Richard Trumka, Andy Stern, Mary Kay Henry, and James Hoffa and after deductions for strike funds, union wages may start out higher but with dues and deductions they can net out less than non-union plants.

Maybe workers are figuring that out. Interviews after the election revealed that workers who voted for representation as well as those voting against were satisfied with their wages – $19.50 per hour for entry level workers, which is $4.50 more than their Detroit cousins are making. And interviews also indicated that anti-union voters were concerned about the disruptive legacy unions have in work relations concerning work rules and seniority, not to mention concern that unions make businesses less competitive. Money poured into the anti-union campaign reminded workers that union dues are used to fund Democrats and Obama who don’t win elections in southern states. (Obama lost Tennessee to Romney by 20%.) Moreover, unions spend money on liberal causes that aren’t popular in the south like gun control and abortion.

As Greg Poteet, one of the VW workers interviewed after the election put it,

The UAW isn’t good for my plant; they can’t offer me or any worker anything we don’t have already. I’m a Christian and a conservative and I refuse to give my (union dues) to things I oppose, like Planned Parenthood, gun control and the Democratic Party.

While there was a time when unions were bipartisan, they’ve grown increasing radical. Unions are a big part of financing the Democrat Party. Obama attributed his 2012 win to the UAW. But declining membership and losing elections translates into declining political influence among Democrats and bad news for Democrat candidates’ coffers on the eve of the 2014 mid-term elections. The unions dropped $14 million into the beg boxes of liberal causes and candidates in the 2012 election.

What’s next?

“Sing Me a Sad Song,” Lynn Anderson lamented in her 1970s hit. It may become the theme song of the UAW if it can’t organize US-based foreign auto makers. And even if to a large degree it could – a BIG if – it can’t influence relative wages paid to produce cars in other countries which are imported into America. History has shown that non-competitive wages, taxes, costs to build new plants simply force local production across borders into low wage, low tax, and low cost countries. The sad song of unions in this country is its product no longer has a market. It’s also the same sad song that Social Security is singing – a growing number of retirees and a shrinking number of wage earning workers. Yes, “Sing me a song of sadness and sing it as blue as I feel …”

Obama’s post-election comments suggested that everyone except the anti-union outsiders wanted the UAW to win the Chattanooga VW workers’ election. Well, Mr. Obama, 712 didn’t.

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