02/28/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

At Tennessee Volkswagen Plant, National Opposition to UAW Signals a New Normal

In its failed push to organize a Tennessee-based Volkswagen plant, the United Auto Workers struggled to combat a salvo of attacks by conservative politicians and outside groups.

From billboards linking the UAW and Detroit to a state senator's warnings that unionization could threaten the plant's tax incentives, the battle lines between pro- and anti-union forces extended far past the Chattanooga factory floor where about 1,500 workers toil each day. The latter group prevailed in a three-day vote earlier in mid-February, as Volkswagen employees decided against organizing by a narrow margin, 712-626.

The once-vaunted union's defeat is not only a blow to its Southern-focused expansion strategy, many experts say, but also emblematic of a broader shift in how labor battles are fought. Outside groups and conservative politicians are increasingly entering local quarrels, elevating struggles at specific plants to the national stage.

"This one narrow loss is not going to stop the UAW," said Kristin Dziczek, a labor expert at the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research. "It's also not going to stop its opponents. They'll follow [the UAW] everywhere."

That's worrisome for a union on the defensive. Insiders described the Volkswagen plant as the UAW's best opportunity in recent memory to organize a foreign-owned assembly plant in the South. Though the union's plummeting membership has leveled off since 2008 - buoyed by the resurgence of domestic manufacturers -- officials have staked its long-term health on so-called "transnational" factories that produce a growing share of Americans' cars.

The Chattanooga vote was doubly painful for the UAW since Volkswagen quietly supported an organized workforce. The company advocates for German-style "works councils" that foster collaboration between white-collar and blue-collar workers. While Volkswagen claims that such a construct gives it a competitive advantage over other carmakers, archaic American labor laws prohibit it without unionization.

Still, the UAW failed to capitalize on the seemingly friendly environment. Last week, it filed an appeal of the vote with the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that oversees union elections, claiming "a firestorm of interference" from outside forces. That protest is likely to fall on deaf ears. The NLRB usually monitors meddling by anti-union companies - not by public officials or third-party interest groups.

That the Chattanooga vote was national in focus is not without precedent. A contract dispute between Boeing and machinists in Washington State last year became a political dispute stretching to Washington, D.C. Right-to-work legislation in Michigan and Wisconsin's recall election of union-busting Gov. Scott Walker similarly drew national attention.

After the vote in Chattanooga, conservatives have pointed to the result as proof that autoworkers are no longer buying what the union is selling. But Art Wheaton, an industry expert at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the result was due primarily to outside political and financial pressure, not a failure in marketing.

"It's hard to fight city hall, as they say -- especially when you're also fighting the Tennessee governor and Tennessee senator," Wheaton said.

U.S. Senator and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) claimed that rejecting the UAW would help bring production of a new SUV to the plant. Volkswagen officials have denied the connection. Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, argued that unionization would scare auto suppliers from the state. And Republican State Senator Bo Watson tacitly threatened future tax incentives for the factory -- it garnered $577 million in promised subsidies before construction in 2011 -- should the union succeed.

Regardless of the veracity of those claims, they play well in southern states dominated by anti-union political ideology. Only 6.1 percent of Tennessee workers belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, scarcely more than half the national average.

What's more, the UAW has yet to repair its national image since the domestic auto industry collapsed in the late-2000s. Southern conservatives view the union as the root cause of Chrysler and General Motors' bankruptcies and eventual federal bailouts. Though the UAW has made significant concessions since then -- including a tiered wage structure that cuts the labor costs of new hires -- the connection provided easy fodder for activists in Tennessee, said Thomas Kochan, a co-director of the Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The image that was painted of the UAW was still the traditional, anti-union one -- that they drive up wages or impose rules that would make [the factory] less competitive," Kochan said. "Those days, in some ways, are really over. That's the old story of the auto industry. But the UAW couldn't overcome that image."

Leading the public relations charge was the Center for Worker Freedom, the anti-union arm of the Washington-based advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform. Among other initiatives, the Grover Norquist-led group bought 13 local billboards reading "Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW" and "United Obama Workers: The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicians, including BARACK OBAMA."

That's red meat in a state in which Obama garnered only 39 percent of votes in 2012. What's more, Norquist has pledged to hold the line against the UAW as it advances toward additional factories across the South, including a Mercedes plant in Vance, Ala., and a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

"Like locusts, like any parasite, [unions] have to move to new and to-date healthy hosts after they have crippled and destroyed their previous hosts," Norquist wrote in an op-ed on the conservative website Human Events.

This isn't to say the UAW is sitting idly by as outside forces continue funneling national, anti-union vitriol toward specific plants. To build wide-ranging support for organizing the Nissan plant in Mississippi, the union enlisted workers in Brazil and sent delegations everywhere from France to South Africa to Japan. Moreover, the union has had some success organizing southern auto suppliers - just not manufacturers.

Still, the UAW faces a growing array of deep-pocketed and well-connected adversaries. And instead of being the first transnational domino to fall in favor of unionization, the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant has emboldened anti-union forces nationwide. Now, with political momentum decidedly against it, the UAW's goal of expanding to foreign-owned assembly plants appears increasingly hard to reach.

"It really rocked them," Cornell's Wheaton said of union organizers' reaction to the vote. "I don't think they expected to lose, and I don't think they had Plan B in place."