By now everyone has heard the disappointing news (among the adjectives used to describe it are "devastating" and "disastrous" and "crushing") out of Chattanooga, Tenn., where workers at a Volkswagen plant voted, by a margin of 712-626, to reject membership in the United Auto Workers (UAW). Volkswagen management remained neutral throughout the organizing campaign.
Granted, because hopes were running so high, no one is going to tell you this wasn't a bitter defeat. Prior to the vote, Bob King, president of the UAW, had gone on record as saying that the key to the UAW's continued existence (having once had 1.5 million members, the union is now down to approximately 380,000) was being able to organize the auto plants in the American South, and that this Chattanooga vote was an absolutely essential first step.
King deserved credit for not equivocating or resorting to those weasel words you hear politicians use whenever they receive bad news. I remember, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, when Christopher Dodd learned that a recent opinion poll had placed him at an unprecedented zero-percent. Instead of weeping, he went on Meet the Press, and said with a big grin, "We've got a lot of room to grow."
But disappointment aside, let's take an objective look at what happened. First, this occurred in the Heart of Dixie, where only 50 years ago, African-Americans weren't allowed to attend the same schools, eat at the same restaurants, or drink from the same water fountains as white people, and where anti-union sentiment was and still is a way of life. To southerners, the very word "union" (as in Union vs. Confederacy) dredges up bad memories. Trying to get a UAW plant down there was a monumentally ambitious undertaking.
Second, Tennessee's governor, Bill Haslam, and its U.S. Senator, Bob Corker played dirty pool. They bombarded workers with histrionic, semi-legal threats, suggesting that if the UAW gained a foothold, Volkswagen would not only move its operations to Mexico, but no carmaker in the world would ever again set up shop in Tennessee. Those threats were both hysterical and deceitful. For one thing, Germany is heavily unionized; for another, every Volkswagen plant except this one is represented by a labor union.
And third, let's look at the numbers. The vote was 712 to 626, with approximately 170 workers not even bothering to fill out ballots. It failed to pass by a mere 87 votes. If the abstainers had voted, or if only 45 people, out of more than 1,330 had voted the other way, the UAW would've won. That's how close it was. That's how close this Tennessee plant, right, smack in the Heart of Dixie, came to becoming a UAW facility.
Instead of seeing this as a devastating, disastrous and crushing defeat, the UAW should be encouraged by its remarkable showing against staggering odds. Some years ago I was tangentially involved in a certification vote at a manufacturing plant in Utah. Nearly 70 percent of the workers had filled out cards asking the NLRB to hold a union election. Even with 70 percent signing cards, the workers rejected the union. The final vote was 130 to 14. Now that's "devastating."
David Macaray is a labor writer and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor").