TPM Cafe: Opinion

The Real Lesson of Chattanooga's Failed Union Push

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AP Photo / Erik Schelzig

Perhaps there is no turning back. But the fight in Tennessee doesn’t really tell us much one way or the other, despite all the hyperbole surrounding the lead-up to the vote. After all, the future of organized labor – if there is one – doesn't rest with auto workers, because the future of the U.S. labor force doesn't rest with auto workers. There are approximately 850,000 auto manufacturing employees, including parts producers, working in the U.S. today. That’s down from well over a million just two decades ago, despite a private sector labor force that has expanded dramatically. Walmart directly employs half a million more workers than the entire auto manufacturing sector. And if the UAW had succeeded, it would have gained about 1,600 due-paying members – in a private sector that employs well over 100 million Americans.

What then is the real lesson of Chattanooga? The campaign illustrates how labor law disadvantages unions trying to make inroads across industry after industry in today’s economy. As I explore in my book, the decline of manufacturing employment hit unions here as elsewhere hard, given the earlier victories labor had in organizing factories across the Northeast and Midwest. To remain relevant, unions must find success in the fast-growing occupations of our increasingly service-dominated economy. This means occupations like home health care aides (a rare bright spot for organized labor in some states), retail workers, fast-food employees, and customer support specialists. And last month’s struggle in the South makes clear what an uphill battle union expansion will be absent significant changes in the laws governing collective bargaining.

How so? Well, the organizing campaign at the Chattanooga plant should have been a cakewalk. Last year, a majority of the plant’s workers signed cards expressing support for the union. That action, in and of itself, could have been the end of the story, as so-called “card check” certification occurs in other parts of the world – including nearly half of Canadian provinces – and in certain organizing drives in the U.S. But political outcry by union opponents spurred the company to call for a secret-ballot election, which typically allows for management to threaten, cajole, and take other legal illegal actions against workers expressing union support. Research by Cornell University Industrial Relations Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner finds that typical employers respond to unionization efforts with threats to close the workplace or cut wages. Employers frequently issue these threats in closed-door meetings between each worker and his or her supervisor, ensuring the message gets through loud and clear. In roughly a third of union elections, employers fire union sympathizers.

Firing union sympathizers, threatening to close operations and other commonly used anti-union tactics are all illegal. Why then do employers break the law? Because it pays to do so. The penalties for these violations are mere pittances in many companies’ bottom lines, and the adjudication process often drags on well beyond the organizing campaign. Over time, many firms have priced in these unfair labor practices as just another cost of doing business.

Volkswagen was not a typical U.S. employer in the Chattanooga election, however. It pledged neutrality in the lead-up to the vote, and from all reports held firm on its promise. By sticking to its pledge, the election shouldn’t have been so suspenseful. After all, over half of the workforce had already expressed support for the union and the company was not interfering with the vote. Instead, it proved a bitter battle, engaging anti-union forces from around the country, and politicians at the state, local, and federal levels. Many of these individuals and organizations filled the anti-union role often reserved for management.

For example, Tennessee state legislators warned darkly about cutting future state subsidies should the workers vote the union in – effectively threatening future jobs for their constituents should the union win. As Harvard Law Professor Benjamin Sachs has written, “conditioning the availability of tax incentives on VW’s union status would in all likelihood be preempted by federal labor law, and therefore illegal.” Senator Bob Corker went further, claiming he had evidence that Volkswagen would expand its Tennessee plant’s product lines if the workers voted down the union (the company strenuously denied the claim). As Indiana University Law Professor Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt has argued, such outside interference in an organizing campaign is also likely illegal.

Corker didn’t stop there. In an interview with the Washington Post on the eve of the vote, he offered this advice to the company’s management: “why don’t you guys create your own union within the plant?” Only one problem: federal labor law, since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, prohibits so-called “company unions.”

Why do Corker and his anti-union colleagues feel free to offer expressly illegal advice – and issue illegal threats – to a private corporation? Because they don’t fear the consequences. This exemplifies the atrophied state of U.S. labor law today, where lawmakers freely flout the law, and demonstrates the long odds labor faces even in the rare case when management remains neutral during an organizing campaign. Would the outcome of the vote have been different if lawmakers actually supported the laws they are elected to uphold? We'll never know. What we do know is the lesson anti-union employers will take from Chattanooga. If prominent lawmakers show such brazen disregard for our country’s labor laws, why should we expect anything different from employers?

Part of TPM Book Club For What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Jake Rosenfeld is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, co-director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest (SSN-NW), and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE), the West Coast Poverty Center (WCPC) and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. He received his PhD in Sociology from Princeton University in 2007. For more information, please see www.jakerosenfeld.net.