What the Unions Can’t Win in Tennessee

Revote or no, the UAW can't reverse decades of decline with nothing to offer workers

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The UAW petitioned the National Labor Relations Board Friday for a revote at the Tennessee Volkswagen plant where workers, 712-626, rejected its bid for unionization. The UAW is accusing Republicans of potentially illicit interference. It has a point. But even if the UAW wins this battle, that doesn’t mean it’ll win the war for its future.

(MORE: Crippling Blow for Labor Union at Volkswagen Plant)

The NLRB, which is stacked with union-supporting Democrats, is expected to grant the UAW’s request. The union regards winning the Volkswagen vote as a crucial first step in a broader effort to reverse decades of decline. Since 1979, its membership has plummeted from 1.5 million to about 380,000 and it has managed to unionize not a single foreign automaker to offset these losses.

This particular plant in Chattanooga was supposed to be easy pickings because, thanks to pressure from IG Metall, the German workers union, Volkswagen had signed a neutrality agreement with the UAW. In Germany, unions can veto management decisions that don’t serve worker interest. And IG Metall had threatened to bar the company from manufacturing a new line of SUVs in Chattanooga, the only Volkswagen facility worldwide that is not unionized, unless it remained “neutral” by forfeiting its right to campaign against the UAW. The company went even further: It not only allowed the UAW to set up a vote drive office inside the plant, but denied unionization opponents similar space.

(MOREA Step Backward for Labor)

This incensed the state’s Republican legislature, which threatened to withdraw an “incentive package” meant to keep this $1 billion facility in Tennessee if workers voted for unionization. What’s more, on the eve of the election, GOP Senator Bob Corker declared that company executives had assured him that failure to unionize would not affect their plans for SUV production, a statement they subsequently denied.

(MORE: VW, Grover Norquist, and the Future of American Unions)

The GOP’s intervention tainted the outcome, but without really gaining it anything. Tennessee is a right-to-work state. This means that even if the UAW manages to unionize the plant, it won’t be able to automatically collect union dues and use them to elect Democrats, the big GOP fear.

Nor is it clear that the UAW’s victory in Chattanooga would even be replicable elsewhere in Tennessee, let alone the rest of the south. That’s because, without the help of an overseas comrade threatening to yank production opportunities, a situation peculiar to German companies, the UAW doesn’t have much to offer workers.

The post-bankruptcy restructuring of the Big Three slashed UAW wages to levels comparable to those at foreign transplants. And the union can no longer insist on lavish health care benefits without signing the death warrant of auto companies given Obamacare’s 40 percent excise tax on gold-plated health care plans. Moreover, transplant workers are rarely ever laid off, so union membership does not buy any more job security.

What’s more, Southern states have actively marketed themselves as union-free zones. This strategy has made Tennessee the South’s auto hub with three foreign automakers located there. By contrast, Michigan has attracted not one, despite its highly trained workforce.

All of this is not lost on Southern workers who are strongly protective of their anti-union heritage. The UAW has tried various degrees of organizing drives at Nissan, Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz without success. Indeed, at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, which might be the UAW’s next target, anti-union workers have taken to wearing T-shirts saying, “If you want a union, move to Detroit.”

General Motors and Chrysler’s bankruptcy has forced even Northern states to shed their union shackles. Indiana, and even more remarkably Michigan, are now right-to-work states, something scarcely imaginable five years ago. It is hardly likely that Southern workers will embrace unionization just when Northern states are de-unionizing, especially given the new competitive pressures emerging from low-wage Mexico and China.

Given all this, Republicans needn’t panic as the UAW puts its unionization drive in the south into high gear. Southern workers are not knaves and fools. They are perfectly capable of watching out for their own interests — and, regardless of what happens in Chattanooga, it doesn’t lie with the unions.