3 lessons from the VW union defeat in Tennessee

The UAW's narrow loss last week's vote at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., wasn't a surprise given the political backlash from the state's politicians.

Forty-four votes. If 44 workers at Volkwagen's factory in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- less than 3 percent of the plant's 1,560 hourly employees -- had voted "yes" instead of "no" in last week's closely-followed union election, the United Auto Workers and labor would be celebrating a "historic" victory in the South.

As it stands, on Feb. 14 the VW workers in Tennessee voted 712 to 626 against joining the union. As a result, the media headlines tell a different story: A "devastating" defeat that "upends [the UAW's] plans in the South" and "casts its strategy into doubt." Bloggers and pundits across the ideological spectrum -- including union reform advocates within the UAW -- have labeled it a "titanic defeat."

Aside from the sensational headlines, how important was the UAW's loss in Tennessee? And what does it say about prospects for labor in the South? Here are three takeaways from the UAW campaign:

1) Where Was the "Neutrality?" The UAW's loss in Tennessee has been portrayed as an especially despiriting setback, given that VW pledged to remain neutral and refrain from openly opposing the union -- in stark contrast to most union drives in the South. But make no mistake, the UAW was operating in a hostile, anti-union climate.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Republican Tennessee lawmakers unleashed a steady stream of threats about the supposed economic consequences of voting in a union, variously claiming that, if the UAW were successful, VW would nix future plans to produce a mid-size SUV in Tennessee and that state lawmakers would halt business subsidies to VW. Nationally, an offshoot of GOP activist Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform sponsored billboards around Chattanooga warning that the UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicians including "BARACK OBAMA" and that "UAW Wants Your Guns."

And while company executives proclaimed to be neutral, the reality in the VW plant wasn't as clear: Union activist Byron Spencer told In These Times reporter Mike Elk that low-level supervisors and salaried employees openly wore "Vote No" T-shirts.

For decades, anti-unionism has been a defining feature of the political culture and economic development strategy of Tennessee and many Southern states. Right to Work laws, attacks on public-sector bargaining -- like a 2011 GOP campaign in Tennessee to strip teachers of bargaining rights -- have been key features of a philosophy among Southern leaders that promotes cheap, unorganized labor as a necessary ingredient to economic success. The UAW wasn't just fighting Tennessee Republicans and national ideologues -- they were fighting decades of anti-union Southern history.

2) Union Organizing Takes Time: Many of the South's successful union drives came only after years, even decades, of effort. For example, it took 16 years for the United Food and Commercial Workers to win an election at pork giant Smithfield Foods in North Carolina -- a campaign where workers faced more significant opposition from the company, but also less involvement from state and national politicians.

As labor writer Lane Windham recently noted in Facing South, the VW campaign in Chattanooga wasn't the first effort to organize auto workers in the South. First with plants that moved from the Midwest to the South in the 1970s, then with the international automakers that began shifting production to the South in the 1980s, the UAW has been making various efforts at organizing in Southern states.

Interestingly, Tennessee is where labor made one of its first attempts to organize international auto makers, at the Nissan Motors plant in Smyrna. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, the Tennessee Nissan workers "voted by a 2-to-1 margin not to accept UAW representation," 1,622 to 711.

Compared to the Nissan campaign, the UAW did much better in Chattanooga last week, winning more than 47 percent of the vote in their first effort since VW opened the plant in 2011. While certainly a setback, the results suggest the UAW and other unions have a base of support they can build on -- if they dig in for the long haul.

3) The Importance of Community and Education: Given the deep resistance to unions among many Southern leaders, a key ingredient to most successful organizing campaigns in the region has been mobilizing community support. Building alliances with faith, civic and other leaders, creating a sense of movement that goes beyond the workplace, has been critical to winning many union drives in the South.

One criticism leveled at the UAW is that organizers didn't fully engage its allies in Tennessee. As Elk reports, some in Chattanooga felt the UAW was "lukewarm" in its relations with the broader community: "Community activists said they had a hard time finding ways to coordinate solidarity efforts with the UAW, whose campaign they saw as insular rather than community-based."

This contrasts with reports from Mississippi, where the UAW has been targeting the state's Nissan plant in Canton for several years. There, the UAW has defined their drive as a continuation of the civil rights struggle, mobilizing community and faith leaders, and even a 150-strong student branch, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance -- efforts tied to the large African-American workforce at Nissan's MIssissippi plant.

As part of its neutrality agreement with Volkswagen, the UAW also agreed to not engage in one-on-one meetings with VW workers unless specifically requested. In a harsh anti-union climate, such house meetings can be critical to answering questions and allaying fears of workers. While the UAW may have seen this as a necessary bargaining chip in convincing VW to not actively opposed the union, it also robbed organizers of the chance to educate and reach out to workers who clearly still had questions about the value of voting a union in.

Looking Forward

What happens next? UAW President Bob King, who plans to step down this year, has hinted the union may challenge the VW vote due to the "unprecedented interference" of Tennessee lawmakers. Union reformers are criticizing the UAW for not being aggressive enough; more conservative pundits are claiming the take-home lesson is for labor to be less confrontational.

The Republicans who vociferously fought the union must now also deliver on their pledge that, if the union was kept out, the jobs would keep rolling in. For its part, VW says it wants to continue with the plan of creating a German-style "works council" at the Chattanooga plant, although some legal specialists believe U.S. labor prohibits such a formation if the workers haven't voted in a union.

As the South continues to grow as the center of U.S. auto production, labor will keep pushing to gain a foothold -- it has to. The UAW still has ongoing campaigns at Nissan in Mississippi and Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, which King has personally directed.

And in Chattanooga, the Volkswagen workers have pledged to keep pushing after the close vote. As Myra Montgomery, a line worker at the Tennessee plant told The Los Angeles Times, "the pro-union supporters are not done."