Why The UAW’s Loss At Chattanooga Was Good For Autoworkers

A worker at VW's Chattanooga plant answers questions from the author during a plant tour in 2011.     A worker at VW's Chattanooga plant answers questions from the author during a plant tour in 2011.

A worker at VW’s Chattanooga plant answers questions from the author during a plant tour in 2011.

My latest post at Bloomberg’s The Ticker blog covers the UAW’s defeat in Chattanooga… and that’s right, it was good for autoworkers. I don’t believe unions are intrinsically good or bad, but I know the UAW has nothing to offer auto workers. The deeply unfair Two Tier wage structure drives away new hires, and in Chattanooga the union was simply trying to rent-seek on what could be an important experiment in US labor relations.

Put simply, VW management and Chattanooga workers alike want a German-style works council, not the UAW. The law should allow workers to adopt works councils and other innovative representative tools (considered a major factor in the success of Germany’s auto industry), and not simply enforce a politicized union’s monopoly (which has nearly a half-century of decline in jobs and wages in this country to answer for).

A lot of people have been reacting to this news with the old trope of the South’s ingrained resistance to change, but what’s really happening is a much-needed innovation in labor relations: decoupling plant-specific worker representation from the political machines that unions like the UAW have become. The key to remaining competitive is experimenting with what is proven to work for others, not retreating into a long-faded past. If works councils wash away the UAW, workers will be far better off for it.

Blind Spot: The Chattanooga Two-Step

A worker at VW's Chattanooga plant answers questions from the author during a plant tour in 2011.

A worker at VW’s Chattanooga plant answers questions from the author during a plant tour in 2011.

 

When United Auto Workers President Bob King staked the future of his union on a campaign to organize a transplant auto factory, the desperation was palpable. Decades of membership decline culminating  in the drama of GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcy-bailout had left the UAW reeling. Few observers gave the union, which hadn’t organized a transplant auto factory in the US  since 1978, much chance of success.

Now the UAW stands at the brink of a historical act of redemption, having all but claimed victory in the drive to organize Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, TN plant. While we wait to see whether that claim holds up, it’s worth examining a few intriguing but undercovered aspects of this case and assess what the impact of a resurgent UAW could be.

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