UAW defeat: A loss in Tennessee is a lesson for all unions

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When Bob King was elected president of the United Auto Workers four years ago, he vowed to organize “transplants” — nonunion factories built by Asian and European automakers, primarily in Southern states.

“There is no more symbolic victory to win,” he said. “We are going to go after them with every ounce of energy and resource we have.”

A vote last week probably offered the UAW’s best shot at organizing a transplant: a Volkswagen assembly plant in Tennessee. Managers of the Chattanooga plant didn’t oppose the union; they hinted they would like its help organizing workers’ councils to make key decisions. But the fact that VW built its plant in the South indicates the limits of its union sympathies.

In a stunning setback, more than 53 percent of workers at the plant voted against joining the UAW.

The union blamed two top GOP officials in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. Both politicians campaigned hard against the union, indicating it might cause jobs to flee the state. On Friday the UAW appealed to the National Labor Relations Board to throw out the results because of interference from the politicians.

But anti-union propaganda was far more virulent in the 1930s and 1940s than it is now, and workers joined a variety of unions then, although doing so could sometimes threaten their livelihoods, even their lives.

Today, in gentler times, the UAW must face the truth that Chattanooga workers voted against the union because they weren’t convinced it would improve their jobs or their quality of life. Instead, some perceived the UAW as primarily protecting the interests of Detroit Three autoworkers. The UAW needs to change that perception — fast.

The UAW has lost three-quarters of its membership since the 1970s. Its most notable recent success has been at organizing graduate students.

The union Walter Reuther made strong must figure out how to appeal to today’s labor force. Otherwise, it may go the way of the Pontiac and the DeSoto.

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