This month, at a Tennessee factory, workers rejected representation by the United Auto Workers union. The 712-626 vote — an 89 percent turnout — against unionizing the 3-year-old Chattanooga Volkswagen plant was a shattering defeat for the UAW, for organized labor generally, and for liberalism nationally. It was a commensurate victory for entrepreneurial federalism.
Sixty years ago, 35 percent of America’s workforce was unionized, almost entirely in the private sector. Today, 11.3 percent is unionized. About half (49.6 percent) of this minority are government workers whose union dues do much to elect their employers. UAW membership has plummeted as far and fast as Detroit has — from 1.5 million in 1979 to about 380,000 in 2012. In 2011, UAW President Bob King said, “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW.”
For 30 years the UAW has tried and failed to unionize a “transnational” — a factory making foreign-brand vehicles — in the South. The union may never have a better chance than it had in Chattanooga. The company, whose board includes representatives of a powerful German union, feigned neutrality but actually worked in close collaboration with the UAW. The union was given access to the plant, a workroom and other facilities, while groups opposing unionization were barred.
It is commonly, and carelessly, said that Washington bailed out “the” automobile industry. Actually, government bailed out two of the three companies in one of the two U.S. auto industries — the UAW-organized one. The other industry, located in the South and elsewhere — Americans making 30 percent of the vehicles Americans purchase — did not need rescuing because it does not have UAW presence, which helped ruin General Motors, Chrysler and their headquarters city, Detroit.
UAW officials blamed last week’s failure on “outside special-interest groups,” which describes the UAW in Chattanooga. In a characteristically shrill and clumsy intervention before the voting ended, Barack Obama accused Tennessee Republicans of being “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers.” He missed the detail that the shareholders’ company favored the UAW. The UAW, too, blamed Tennessee’s Republican politicians. Well.
VW received $577 million in tax breaks and other incentives to locate in Chattanooga, so Tennessee officials surely were entitled to speak about how unionization might harm the investment already made and might diminish the likelihood of additional help.
Nowadays, however, liberalism responds to its unpersuasiveness by trying to get government to silence (as with the IRS) or punish (it is the National Labor Relations Board’s turn) speech by liberalism’s critics.
So, the UAW may ask the NLRB to overturn the vote because of unfair labor practices, which supposedly amount to the fact that the UAW was not the only speaker during the debate before the vote. Anti-UAW billboards noted Detroit’s current prostration, and Sen. Bob Corker called the UAW “a Detroit-based organization.” Its headquarters, Solidarity House, is in Detroit.
Soon — certainly by the end of June — the Supreme Court probably will rebuke Obama for having made recess appointments to the NLRB while the Senate was not in recess. But given his administration’s culture of breezy indifference to legality, the NLRB might tug its forelock and do as the UAW demands.
In November, a prescient UAW organizer said the union would “probably lose” in Chattanooga if workers were granted a secret ballot election. That is, the UAW favored a “card check” faux election, whereby unionization is approved when a majority of employees, confronted individually by union organizers, sign a card. The UAW could not prevent a proper election, but with the NLRB’s permission the campaign was compressed to nine days. This minimized the time for UAW opponents to make their case.
Despite the UAW’s attempt to do for the South what it has done to Detroit, the South can continue to practice entrepreneurial federalism. Capital is mobile. It goes where it is welcomed and stays where it is well-treated, so states compete to create tax and regulatory environments conducive to job creation. Liberals call this a “race to the bottom.” Conservatives call it a race to rationality.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.