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.