With the UAW suffering a stunning defeat in Tennessee, have unions become a thing of the past?

unionsVolkswagen workers narrowly voted to reject becoming a union plant this past weekend. By doing so, the workers dealt a blow to the United Auto Workers (UAW) attempt to unionize the foreign-owned car maker’s factory, a first for any foreign owned car factory located in Tennessee. If the UAW had succeeded, it would have been the first unionized plant in Tennessee as well.

What is striking is the level of intimidation levied at the company by the Republicans representing Tennessee. State Sen. Bo Watson, Chattanooga, claimed that Volkswagen “has promoted a campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns.

“Should the workers choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.” Republican Governor Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker (R) threatened Volkswagen with retribution if the vote to unionize succeeded. Presumably the threats were directed at the company because it welcomed the union. With threats like these it is easy to see why Republicans are perceived as bullies.

Can Unions Recover?

For years, union organizations have faced declining membership. In 1983, union membership stood at 17.7 million members.  In 2013, membership had fallen to 14.3 million. Unions have repeatedly been attacked by Republican controlled state legislatures through Right-to-Work (RTW) bills. But to have workers, who will only benefit from a unionized plant, reject unionization speaks to a larger problem for the future of unions. A problem of not only educating workers and the public, but of how to modernize the union itself to keep its relevance.

Republican politicians have done a masterful job in convincing workers that the unions will ruin their jobs if allowed. One of the Volkswagen employees, Mike Jarvis, said the majority had voted against UAW because they were persuaded the union had hurt Detroit’s automakers. “look at what happened to the auto manufacturers in Detroit and how they struggled. They all shared one huge factor: the UAW,”

Mr. Jarvis added that he had had bad experiences with other labor unions. “if you look at how the UAW’s membership has plunged, that shows they’re doing it wrong.” While Mr. Jarvis is partially correct in his facts, one would suspect he is recycling Republican talking point given they control the message in the South.

unionsWhat transpired in Detroit when the automakers collapsed does not lend itself to neat little talking points that politicians are so fond of, it speaks to a much deeper problem of corporate greed and economic factors outside of the auto industry itself. Health care costs alone added just over one-thousand dollars to the price per vehicle alone. A Car company CEO makes 411 times what the average union worker makes.  This failure absolutely does not belong squarely on the unions.

Originally, unions were formed out of a need to protect the worker from low pay, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Unions played a major role in ending sweatshops and child labor. Union shops are also one of the few industries where men and women earn equal pay. Unions today offer the largest career training program outside of the U.S. Military. Unions have been credited with creating a strong middle class. They improve working conditions and standard of living for union and non-union members alike.

Despite everything listed above, thanks to Republican misinformation, unions are perceived by the public at large as being corrupt and unnecessary. The trouble is that many people just don’t understand their importance. They don’t understand what the unions have done for all of us – not just union workers. What people hear loud and clear, however, are the Republican voices telling them unions are bad for the economy and do nothing to protect workers. Unions will need to spend all of their efforts to change the narrative or they just may become a relic of the past.


  1. This is true. Plants outside of the U.S. have what is called a “work council” that provides workers an avenue to work with plant bosses to improve safety, production and workers rights. In the coming weeks I will be writing about this and exploring what it would mean here in the U.S.

  2. I believe if the unions have a chance to survive they will have to modern up. Our parents unions are gone. The working class must still organize to get a fair days pay for a fair days work and to keep business from exploiting and endangering the workers, environment and the general public (not for one second should we trust corporations to do the right thing-they won’t). The unions need to higher some “corporate organizer” who can play out this chess game. It’s the union’s move now.

    • Unions were formed from an “us versus them” mentality. I think the societal shift in the job market has a lot to do with the fact that generations after the 70’s or so do not know the value of unions and why they are still needed. But the question of whether an organization originally formed in such a contentious atmosphere with an unquestioned existence for so long can change to meet today’s needs is going to need to be explored.

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