The Score at Tennessee Volkswagen: Individualism 1, Solidarity 0

In mid-February, a group of Chattanooga workers voted in what conservative commentator George Will called “the most important election of 2014.” They were workers in the Volkswagen plant, choosing whether or not to form a union.

Will was not exaggerating about the vote’s importance. For America’s working men and women, union membership usually has more impact on their lives than which party controls the House or Senate. A hotel housekeeper or building janitor typically earns a living wage if they belong to a union, and a poverty wage if they do not. Union contracts generally include employer-paid health insurance, so their health care does not depend on the fate of the Affordable Care Act. In mid-term Congressional elections like the one coming up in November, about 40% of eligible voters turn out; nearly 90% of eligible workers in the Volkswagen plant participated.

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When those votes were counted, 626 workers had voted to join the United Autoworkers—but 712 voted against. The result is disturbing for union advocates, because this was about as close to a level playing field as you are likely to see in a union vote.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, workers generally choose whether or not they want to form a union through an election campaign in their workplace, one that pits union supporters against union opponents. Ordinarily, employers threaten, discipline or fire union activists, making organizing extremely difficult. In more unusual cases, employers adopt a neutral position, and the advantage—though less pronounced—shifts to union supporters. Will and other anti-union commentators fantasize that rampant “intimidation” by union organizers explains this. That’s nonsense, but when the company is in fact a disinterested party, union supporters enjoy the assistance of a well-resourced and experienced team of union organizers to help make their case, while skeptics are left to their own devices.

In this case, workers on both sides felt safe making their case openly, and both groups enjoyed professional backing: UAW supporters from union organizers, opponents from a variety of conservative organizations (like Grover Norquist’s “Center for Worker Freedom”) who parachuted in to assist the “no” campaign. And by a 53%-47% margin, workers opted against the UAW and collective bargaining.

To join a union is to form an association in the workplace. It’s a democratic association, one where workers elect their leaders and engage together in collective bargaining, but like all associations it carries a price—one who chooses association assumes duties as well as rights. In the end, individual liberty proved more compelling than solidarity for the majority of the voters, and that bodes ill for organized labor.

 “Solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue,” as John Paul II observed. But with each passing day it seems less and less an American virtue.

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Vince Killoran
3 years 7 months ago
Well stated. It is shocking that workers don't see the value of higher wages, safer working conditions, and due process in the workplace. They ignore common sense and Catholic social teaching. Corporations organize but workers do not.
Bob Revitte
3 years 7 months ago
Since no one in these comments apparently has worked for VW in TN including myself, we're assuming we know about working conditions there. The vote supports those who believe things must be good or it could simply mean the UAW no longer has a service that workers want...or need. It's likely a combination of both. It's been some time since I worked in management for an auto company but from the chaos experienced at GM and Chrysler in the Great Recession it appears nothing has changed in relationships between the UAW and the companies. This old way of operating and the adversarial "us vs them" mentality is yesterday's way of managing. Look at the car makers from Japan, Korea and Germany (aside from VW) to see how enlightened managers run their businesses in the US. They see employees as part of the team and not just assemblers. VW got it right with work councils but got it wrong that a union was necessary in the US to have work councils. It's been my experience in working and setting up union-free operations that managers who know how to work as a team with their employees, pay competitive wages and benefits and treat employees with dignity and respect are the ones that remain union-free. This may surprise some die-hard union supporters but there are many US employers who buy into this way of operating and isn't that what the Social Encyclicals teach.
Vince Killoran
3 years 7 months ago
The problem Bob is that--nice wages and all--these non-union arrangements depend on the good will of management. The only way to ensure "economic democracy" in the workplace (and that is something the Social Teachings emphasize) is through collective bargaining.
Bob Revitte
3 years 7 months ago
You may call it "economic democracy" but based upon my experiences in dealing with several international unions over the years, union leadership is more concerned with power than running their unions democratically. Having said that, let me also say I have met some upstanding people in union leadership but they were the minority. What may have been a need for many workers in the past, especially in the period from 1930 to 1960, simply doesn't resonate with workers in most industries today. They are better educated and know the pitfalls of signing on with unions that promise much but deliver little. These workers know that their security and economic future rests with working for enlightened employers who know the value of labor and don't see labor as simply a cost center. Believe me when I say there are many managers who think that way. This explains why unions can no longer deliver a service that isn't unmet by employers. Representation in the private sector continues to fall precipitously. There must be a reason. Could it be time for the UAW, USW, UMWA and other unions that are a mere shadow of who they were to look at what workers are rejecting today and ponder their future? Is there a place for unions in the private economy? Those employers who fail to manage and lead people who deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness will reap the shortcoming of their vision if they shortchange their employees.
Vince Killoran
3 years 7 months ago
I do believe you when you say that managers think this way! Isn't that the point? Let me offer my experience and scholarship. First, the experience: I've been in organized and unorganized workplaces for over thirty years and the former are, by far, superior--better wages, benefits, humane working conditions, and due process. Are unions perfect? Of course not--but they don't compare the vast crookedness of many in the business world. We can count the scandals, stolen money, and ruined lives and communities if need be. Now the scholarship: when asked a majority of Americans say that they would chose a union if given the option. The union wage premium etc. are well-documented. I'm happy to pass on the academic references if you wish. As for the claim that workers today are better educated and don't need unions you should know that the average unionized worker today is a pink or white collar worker, not the coal miner or auto workers of a half century ago. The Church's social teachings in support of unions are as relevant today as they were back then.
Bob Revitte
3 years 7 months ago
You and I have a different view of the working world that we have in the US today and neither of us will convince the other otherwise. It's interesting that you mention coal miners and auto workers. A significant majority of coal miners today work in union-free mines and aside from auto workers working under a union contract today at Ford, GM and Chrysler, all other auto workers in the US work in union-free operations. Can we then conclude that the UAW and the UMWA no longer have a service that today's employees need or want? Polling data is fun to parse and one of the best polling points without a doubt are secret ballot elections which unions know they usually come up short. Whether they're blue, pink or white collar workers, if they're working in the US private sector today it's highly likely they have chosen to work union-free. Only 7% of the US workforce works under a contract and usually they have no choice under the restrictive union security provisions found in typical UAW, USW, UMWA and other labor contracts. The other 93% of working Americans have repeatedly shown no interest in unions. This represents a tremendous market for unions who need members to sustain their viability but I have seen little evidence that unions know how to market their services. And please don't raise the canard that employers are brow-beating their employees to stay out of unions. Unions face the same fate as Packard and Studebaker. If you don't have a product people want, you close your doors.
Vince Killoran
3 years 7 months ago
Given the weak protections for workers who support unions I'm surprised anyone would join. Penalties against employers who break election laws is almost nil and recognition elections don't come close to resulting into a real union since management drags its feet on signing a first contract.
Bob Revitte
3 years 7 months ago
So long, Mr. Killoran .I enjoyed the conversation which was sane and without anger. Maybe there will be other dialogues we can have someday in which we share our experiences. For now, we see the world of work through different prisms. I see most employers smart enough today to treat employees fairly and with respect. If I interpret correctly what you have written, your views reflect what you have experienced working for a number of employers that didn't measure up to your expectations. As a result, you decided a third party union should represent your interests. Seven percent of workers in the private sector agree with you, so you're not alone. Have a great day.
john andrechak
3 years 7 months ago
Mr. Killoran, Thank you for your post. Well said! Anyone who believes management, aka the bosses, are going to treat workers fairly without Unions must never heard of the Waltons and the rest of the one percent. Each time I step onto a job that came thru my Union I am standing on the shoulders of giants! Men, women and children who gave the last full measure at the hands of company thugs, police, state militias and in cases the US Army (see the occupation of Butte, America) so that the likes of me can make a decent living for myself and my family.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 7 months ago
Well, the ancestors of these folks did fight to the death to preserve an institution that only benefitted a small, rich elite. And the UAW probably was seen as a Yankee invasion. They'd probably rather work ununionized for the germans if they were still nazis than ally with a Yankee organization. Just ain't in the spiritual DNA.
John Barbieri
3 years 7 months ago
Is there any doubt that the election was conducted fairly, non-violently, and legally? If it was so conducted, the employees expressed wishes by the election should be honored. Perhaps the UAW should look in the mirror. it might not like what it sees. Perhaps, it needs to change in some way. And, as for those of us who are outsiders, perhaps we ought to look in the mirror as well. We might not like to see our condescending arrogance toward the "uninformed, ignorant fools" at the Volkswagen plant who don't share our superior views about what is good for them.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years 7 months ago
No one doubts the right of the workers to join a union, and by all accounts the choice not to join the UAW was made in a fair election. "To join a union is to join an association" is true, but unions are not the only way of associating, either for social purposes or for negotiation of labor terms and conditions. Many firms operate successfully, and with due regard for their employees' well-being, without a union. Quite possibly, Volkswagen will continue to be one of them.
john andrechak
3 years 7 months ago
Mr. Dunn, Actually one only need to have the accounts of the lead up to this election to understand it was not a fair election; among other factors elected officials made open and blatant threats that VW would only increase its production line if the vote went non-union, and that state involvement in the form of tax incentives would be withheld and withdrawn if the vote went union; elected officials railed against unionization, calling it un-American.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years 7 months ago
Thanks for your comment. There were anti-union comments by a few elected officials--an exercise of free speech not proscribed by the National Labor Relations Act. The VW workers and other Tennessee voters can deal with that in the next election. But what the workers rejected was representation by the UAW. In post-election statements, UAW officials applauded Volkswagen's fairness, and VW emphasized that it would continue to look toward adopting a works council (the employee-representation model used in VW's European plants) and in which a number of VW Tennessee employees show positive interest. The article implies that VW's workers voted for individualism over solidarity. It is that assessment which I believe is unwarranted under the circumstances in this ongoing process. To make the same point from a different angle: A 53% vote in favor of the UAW would not have have been evidence of solidarity any more than a 53% vote against the UAW is evidence of individualism.
john andrechak
3 years 7 months ago
Actually there were threats by elected officials, of denying tax credits for expansion among others, and these are a violation of the law. In regards to Catholics and Catholicism, anti-unionism seems to me to be part of the Church that has historic roots, manifested in earlier times by support of the divine right of Kings
Jacqueline MCGEE
3 years 7 months ago
The non-union auto companies tend to pay pretty good wages anyway, partly because of the existence of the unionized auto companies. To some extent the workers in Tennessee are counting on the employees at Ford and GM to keep their wages just slightly below the union tier, without having to pay union dues. And, of course, people have been listening non-stop for five or six years to vilification of labor unions. I do not give unions a total pass on the reputation they have come to have, but I really do wonder why nobody seems to think it matters that at the height of the power of the unions in the auto industry, the CEO made 50-60 times what the regular workers do, while that multiple now is 200-300 times. Whose salaries are the problem? BTW, Volkswagen in Germany is highly unionized as are most of their industries, and their economy has yet to plunge...
john andrechak
3 years 7 months ago
Mr. Sinyai, First, thank you for this article; it does a well needed job of out lining Catholic teaching in regards to Unions; I came to Union work late in my life; in the need of work I found a livable wage, relatively decent work condition, in light of the dismal state of the American workplace in general, where a worker dies every two hours, good benefits for myself and my family; I have posted my work stubs every week for my daughters to see the place unions have in our society, and have them pledged never to cross a picket line. Each month I write a check for dues to not one but two Unions, the IBEW and LIUNA, and each time I consider it an honor to do so! In Solidarity
Tom Helwick
3 years 7 months ago
After 26 years flying for North Central, Republic, and Northwest Airlines as a pilot I can attest to the value of a labor unions especially when dealing with the high powered negotiators that these companies hire. During my career I had only one work suspension with a walk out after the company decided to play hardball over work rules and pay structure, within two weeks they returned to the table and we hammered out a contract. Most of the hassle was over work rules which impacts safety directly and product quality of the company involved, It was always comforting to know somebody had your back and the knowledge that you would receive a fair hearing regardless of circumstances.

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