Lowry: The UAW’s worker problem

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014 9:28pm
  • Opinion

The activist Florence Reece wrote the union ballad “Which Side Are You On?” in the midst of Kentucky’s so-called Harlan County War in the 1930s.

Posed this question late last week by the United Auto Workers, employees of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant answered that they don’t want to be on the side of a union that is slipping into irrelevance. Once a 1.5 million-member behemoth, the UAW has seen its membership decline to a fourth of what it was in the late 1970s.

Everything had lined up for it in Chattanooga. Not only was VW officially neutral, it tilted the playing field in favor of the union. The company allowed it to campaign in the plant — a major advantage — while opponents were excluded. The media was praising Volkswagen’s enlightened European attitude toward organized labor and celebrating imminent victory for the union.

Then the workers had their say. The UAW reportedly spent $5 million in the course of a campaign that lasted two years, and lost by a 712 to 636 vote.

The motto of the old American Federation of Labor was “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” VW workers felt they already had it. Wages in Chattanooga are comparable to those of new hires of the Detroit automakers, roughly $20 an hour.

The unionization of the workforce would make it possible for VW to form a European-style “works council” of management and workers to make decisions about the plant. But workers already felt amply consulted by management. Even UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams attested, “Volkswagen’s a class act.”

This is hardly the “Battle of the Overpass,” when company thugs beat UAW officials trying to organize Ford in the 1930s. This is a car company putting out a welcome mat for union organizers who still couldn’t manage to organize.

Florence Reece wrote, “Come all of you good workers/Good news to you I’ll tell/Of how the good old union/Has come in here to dwell.” But the workers in Chattanooga didn’t consider it such good news.

Bob King, the head of the UAW, thinks they are guilty of false consciousness. If only they weren’t so viciously misled by outside agitators, like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga who helped to woo VW to the city in the first place. He rightly said that the UAW is in a “death spiral,” and more controversially, that the automaker would make a rapid decision to invest further in the plant if the UAW lost the vote.

King alleges that Corker’s comments violated “the spirit” of labor law, which is nonsense. The senator doesn’t work for VW, and he has the First Amendment right to say whatever he wants. If Corker is guilty of dirty pool, what about President Barack Obama, who told a group of Democratic lawmakers that no one opposed the UAW organizing the Chattanooga plant except people “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers”? That’s not inflammatory.

The only law that will satisfy King is one that forbids anyone from saying a discouraging word about his union, which was found alone in a room in 2009 with two nearly dead car companies. After the UAW did so much to chase automaking out of Detroit with unsustainable labor costs and ridiculous work rules, it is no wonder that workforces haven’t welcomed it into the South, where right-to-work states have become alluring destinations for foreign car companies.

For the longest time, the business model of the UAW has been to take its members’ dues and funnel them to friendly Democratic politicians. Unless it breaks into the South, the union knows it’s all but doomed. It may feel this institutional imperative keenly, but workers in good manufacturing jobs who owe nothing to this self-serving dinosaur from the 20th century don’t. They can be forgiven for wondering which side the union is on.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Opinion: The foolish men claiming self-defense

It’s not just misguided teenagers carrying guns who find themselves in trouble with the law.

Opinion: State defends its right to cut nonexistent taxes

This from a state that has no property tax on homes or businesses, only on the oil industry.

Dr. Jay Butler, former chief medical officer for the State of Alaska, is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy photo)
Alaska Voices: Feeling grateful this Thanksgiving for the COVID vaccines

The COVID vaccines remain our strongest tool in combating the pandemic and helping us return to our lives and the things we love and cherish.

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Voices of the Peninsula: All votes matter

In the beginning, only property-holding white men could vote.

Cristen San Roman. (Photo provided)
Point of View: Is management of Cook Inlet catered to special interest groups?

If these fish are so at risk, why is BOEM able to move forward with lease sale 258?

Homer Foundation
Point of View: Grateful for the hidden ‘good’

Gratitude: Noun The state of being grateful; thankfulness. The state or quality… Continue reading

Homer High School Principal Douglas Waclawski. (Photo provided)
Point of View: What is Homer High School about?

What I consider Homer High’s strength is that we are a place for learning.

UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell. (courtesy photo)
Alaska Voices: Invent your future at UAA

At UAA we’re providing the tools to help students of all ages and skills chart a new course forward.

A registered nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the pop-up clinic on the Spit on May 27. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Alaska Voices: Vaccination is the still best protection from COVID-19

The Alaska State Medical Association encourages you to protect yourselves and your community from preventable illness by getting recommended vaccines.

(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
The sad diminishment of Rep. Don Young

Young seems afraid to demand his party leader defend the dignity of the institution he loves.

A “Vote Here” sign is seen at the City of Kenai building on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Clarion file)
Alaska Voices: Restore our strong campaign donation limits

Without campaign spending limits, the ideal of one person, one vote is no longer really true.

The Final Redistricting Map approved for the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna area is seen on Nov. 9, 2021. (Map via akredistrict.org)
Alaska Voices: The Alaska Redistricting Board’s last-minute gerrymandering failed Alaska

Our Constitution outlines rules for a redistricting process designed to uphold public trust.