Last night, after three days of voting in the highest profile union election in years, the United Auto Workers (UAW) lost an election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 712 to 626. The loss in what had been widely touted as a symbol of labor’s future—a new Operation Dixie—“is expected to slow, perhaps stymie, the union’s long-term plans to organize other auto plants in the South,” according to Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times. Indeed, In These Times labor reporter Mike Elk took to social media soon after the results were announced and provided this short dispatch:
There is already no shortage of postmortems on the election and what went wrong. Most focus on outside interference by Republican state and federal lawmakers, and by outside anti-union groups. (In a rarity among American employers, Volkswagen remained neutral and was even quietly supportive of the union.) But few have discussed the conditions that allowed these outside individuals and groups to influence the election.
The UAW had been organizing the Chattanooga VW facility since at least March 2012. By July 2013, the UAW claimed that a majority of workers signed cards stating that they wished to be represented by the UAW. Though only 30% of employees need to sign such cards to trigger an election, unions usually seek twice that amount. If UAW had obtained cards from 60% of the workers in July 2013, why was the election not held for another 7 months?
First, the UAW tried to get VW to agree to card check. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employers are permitted to recognize a union based on certification that a majority of the workers in the bargaining unit have signed cards choosing the union (so-called “card check”). But employers are not required to accept this method. So even though VW quietly favored unionization of its workers in Chattanooga, it opted to require an election. Why? The best guess is that corporate managers recognized that voluntary card check would likely agitate the local Republican political establishment, which could in turn retaliate by making it more expensive for VW to continue to do business in the area.
Second, after failing to get a card check agreement, the UAW negotiated a neutrality agreement with VW. (These agreements typically require that the employer not actively oppose union organization, while the union agrees not to take economic actions against the employer.) Regardless of how one feels about the substance of the agreement–and there are critics on both sides–there is no disputing that the process took time. And in an organizing drive, the time between getting cards signed and an election is precious. Often employers stretch this period out in order to wear down employees, knowing that every day that passes before an election increases their chances of victory.
Here, the delay allowed anti-union groups such as the National Right to Work Committee and Grover Norquist’s new Center for Worker Freedom to spread misinformation and bring legal challenges against UAW. It gave Senator Bob Corker time to spread the dubious claim that Volkswagen would not expand its SUV facility in Tennessee if the workers voted for the union. Furthermore, it gave Republican state and federal elected officials time to threaten to withhold future tax incentives for Volkswagen and spread dubious claims that a successful union vote would lead VW to cancel planned expansion of its Tennessee facility. Though no one factor led to the UAW’s loss, allowing anti-union groups time to mobilize and spread misinformation certainly hurt the situation.
There are a number of lessons that should be learned from Chattanooga. One is that once you have a majority of cards signed, move quickly.