Volkswagen workers lost. Why?

From Feb. 12 to 14, hourly workers at Volkswagen’s four-year-old plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted on whether or not to be represented by the United Auto Workers. The final tally showed an unexpected 712-626 rejection of the UAW. Business writers are calling this a “devastating” (Detroit Free Press) and “crushing defeat.” (Wall Street Journal)

It is not unusual for an organizing drive to come up short on the first try. This vote, however, was viewed as critical for the UAW, whose ranks are below 400,000 compared to 1.5 million in 1979. UAW President Bob King has argued repeatedly that, without organizing “transplant” factories of European and Asian car companies, the union cannot make gains at the bargaining table for its members at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

A common theme in articles analyzing this setback is that this should have been an easy win for the UAW. “How could a union lose an unopposed campaign?” asked Mike Elk in the usually pro-union periodical, In These Times. “The UAW had all the advantages,” said anti-union Sen. Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga. “Everybody but the UAW had both hands tied behind their backs.” (Wall Street Journal)

Unusual circumstances did indeed surround this vote. Typically, the National Labor Relations Board holds an election when the union requests it. The company then does everything in its power — legal and illegal — to pressure, intimidate and mislead workers so they vote against union representation. Because companies often succeed, in recent years unions have sought “card check” recognition, bypassing the election process when a majority of workers sign union cards.

In this case, VW asked the NLRB to conduct the election. Both parties signed an agreement prior to the vote whereby the company would not oppose the UAW. VW gave the union space inside the plant and allowed representatives to make the pitch at in-plant meetings on company time.

What VW got in return was a 22-page “agreement for a representation election” that would, had the workers voted for the UAW, have established a German-style “works council.” Here, the UAW agreed — with no consultation with VW workers — to delegate “certain issues, functions and responsibilities that would otherwise be subject to collective bargaining” to “a plant works council that engages in co-determination with the employer.”

The works council is sponsored by the company. Representatives are elected by both union members and nonmembers and do not have to be union members themselves.

Works councils usurp from the traditional bargaining process everything from safety to grievance handling, excluding wages and benefits. On those, the election agreement committed the union to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that VWGOA [Volkswagen Group of America] enjoys relative to its competitors.”

From a union member’s point of view, this is even worse than recent contracts, negotiated during King’s tenure, to keep GM, Ford and Chrysler “competitive” at the membership’s expense.

Had the UAW won, one could have argued that agreeing to the works council language was necessary to be able to organize VW without company interference. Winning recognition at a Southern transplant would be a ­game-changer, paving the way to organize all of the transplants. This election loss calls for ruthless scrutiny of the UAW’s class ­collaborationist strategy.

What defeated the UAW

To understand the union’s defeat — a major setback for the working class, especially in the South — we cannot simply ascribe it to misleadership on the part of the UAW. That would ignore the role played by the home-grown Southern capitalist establishment, whose historical animus towards unions knows no bounds. The UAW itself underestimated this factor.

At the start of the Civil War, four states, among them Tennessee, joined the seven original Confederate states in seceding from the U.S. The political establishment in the former Confederacy, which had a legal system of apartheid segregation until the mass movement defeated it in the 1960s, has a long history of fiercely opposing unions.

Unions give workers the power to win better wages and working conditions, cutting into profit margins. The Southern bourgeoisie — historically based in agriculture and manufacturing and thus a junior partner of the Wall St. financial establishment — understands this objective fact, even as UAW President King bends over backwards to cooperate with capital.

There is another reason the Southern establishment prefers to remain union-free. Unions played a pivotal role in breaking down segregation, especially in the workplace. In Memphis, Tenn., the UAW and the United Rubber Workers — both part of the CIO — fought for equality at International Harvester and Firestone. The famous 1968 sanitation strike used the United Rubber Workers hall as a base.

Southern Dixiecrats voted 100 percent for the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which allowed states to pass anti-union “right-to-work” laws. Tennessee was one of the first ten states to pass such laws immediately after Taft-Hartley passed. In the 1960s, the Dixiecrats — such as the notorious segregationist bigot Strom Thurmond — left the ­Democratic Party for the Republicans. This is the legacy that Sen. Corker — who attacked the UAW vociferously during the 2008-9 hearings on the auto bailout — and his ilk represent.

Since the UAW drive began two years ago, the right wing has kept up a steady drumbeat of anti-union propaganda. Working with the Right to Work Foundation, “No2UAW” built an anti-union campaign among plant workers — even co-opting some legitimate arguments of anti-concession activists in the UAW. Ultrarightist Grover Norquist paid for billboards making the ludicrous claim that the UAW “bankrupted Detroit.” The union was labeled pro-abortion, anti-gun and “un-American.”

Propaganda alone was ineffective; a majority of VW hourly workers signed cards asking to be represented by the UAW. Three days before the vote, Corker and a number of state legislators had to threaten workers with loss of their jobs. In this unstable economy, that is one of the scariest things a worker can face.

State representatives stated flat out that there would be no more tax incentives for the plant if the union won. Corker made the wholly unsubstantiated claim — which the VW plant manager even challenged — that if the workers voted for the union the plant would lose work to Mexico.

By holding the election — as opposed to card check recognition — and allowing anti-union supervisors in the plant to intimidate workers, VW management chose to accommodate the right-wing establishment. The company will happily pursue the business of exploitation without a union “partner.”

It took Corker’s brazen — and probably illegal — interference in union affairs to tip the scales, dealing a big blow to the movement to organize the South. Yet this movement — as exemplified by the Southern Workers Assembly — is by no means crushed and, in fact, is moving forward.

Martha Grevatt is a 26-year UAW Chrysler worker. Next: Change is ­needed in the UAW strategy