Why the UAW lost in Chattanooga
Robert Samuelson offers his analysis:
On paper, unions can deliver three things: higher wages and fringe benefits; greater job security; and better working conditions, including protection against arbitrary or unlawful management practices. In the 1950s and ’60s, unions could win these gains. Now, greater competition has eroded their leverage. Workers weighing the reduced advantages of being unionized must also consider the possibility that high-priced, rigid union labor might one day cost them their jobs. In Chattanooga, this calculus went against the UAW.
Private-sector unions lost their power to protect jobs and raise incomes. Unions were caught in a vise. If they pressed for higher wages and fringe benefits, they risked destroying jobs. Companies might lose sales to lower-cost rivals; or they might move to anti-union states or low-wage countries. Even protecting existing compensation levels became hard because — in extremis — companies might fail. On the other hand, if unions abandoned traditional bargaining goals, they might infuriate rank-and-file members and be accused of “selling out.”
I think, on those two points, he’s right. But there’s a third point he doesn’t mention that I think is just as important. VW chose Chattanooga when it had plenty of opportunities in union states to set up its plant. When it chose Chattanooga, it chose an area whose citizens lived in a state that believed in a “right to work” without interference from unions. It put its plant in an area with that sort of a culture, a culture that is essentially anti-union and without the pervasive union culture you find in union states.
Additionally, as Samuelson points out, companies over the years have learned what sort of practices they must use to keep unions out, especially in the South. Consequently those sorts of business practices have gradually made unions much less necessary and has therefore badly eroded the leverage of unions. Take that eroded leverage to a “right to work” state and the results are likely not something a union would like, as the UAW discovered. When workers do a cost/benefit analysis, unions mostly come out on the negative side of things. And then, of course, there’s Detroit today:
A works council may be worth trying, but whatever its virtues, they were overshadowed by the UAW’s past. Hardly anyone doubts that high labor costs and obsolete work rules contributed mightily to the crackup of the Big Three. VW’s workers recoiled; they kept the status quo. For the UAW, success in one era sowed failure in the next.
Workers saw no advantage to an association with the UAW. It was a smart move on their part, even as they worked for a decidedly union-friendly employer.