The United Auto Workers union was dealt a serious blow Friday when auto workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted against unionization in a closely watched fight that could have historical implications for the future of unions in the U.S.
“The loss could further dent the prestige of the UAW, membership of which had plummeted 75% since 1979 and now stood at less than 400,000,” The Guardian reports. “It was also likely to reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW could not make significant inroads in a region that historically had been steadfastly against organized labor and where all foreign-owned assembly plants employed non-union workers.”
The fight, which saw a two year UAW campaign in the state while Volkswagen stayed officially neutral on the vote, experienced a sudden surge of outside anti-union influence as the vote drew near.
“Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate,” said Tennessee Republican State Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson at a press conference on Monday, while Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick insinuated that state subsidies to Volkswagen could also be blocked if the vote passed.
Additionally, as Mike Elk at In These Times reported, the Center for Worker Freedom, a Grover Norquist-backed anti-union group “booked radio spots to air anti-union ads and rented 13 billboards around the city to display anti-UAW messages.”
And on Wednesday Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the former mayor of Chattanooga, issued a statement suggesting that if the union vote passed, VW would likely expand production in a plant in Mexico, rather than in Tennessee. He state: “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.”
The notion was denied by Frank Fischer, the chairman and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, in a statement on Thursday: “There is no connection between our Chattanooga employees’ decision about whether to be represented by a union and the decision about where to build a new product for the U.S. market.”
None-the-less UAW lost 712 to 626, with roughly 89% of workers voting.
“An announcement of whether a new seven-passenger crossover vehicle will be produced in Chattanooga or in Mexico could come as early as next week,” according to Reuters.
“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,” said Bob King, the UAW president.