Why the UAW can only blame itself for losing at VW

David Barkholz is a reporter for Automotive News.

Cooperative partnership helped the UAW get in the door at Volkswagen Chattanooga.

But the strategy, which brought Detroit 3 auto workers a pernicious two-tier wage system in 2007 and other employer-friendly concessions over the past decade, proved the union's undoing in the organizing election last week.

Bottom line: a majority of the 1,550 hourly workers at VW Chattanooga just couldn't see paying dues to a union that tolerated two-tier wages and hadn't produced a wage increase for workers in a decade (2003). That's not performance.

Listen to what workers said after the vote. VW hourly employee Ronnie Shaver was quoted by The Detroit News. "Everybody thought they were to come up and be up with the legacy workers" at U.S. plants making around $28 an hour, Shaver said. "That's not going to happen. They haven't had a raise in 10 years."

Another worker who voted against UAW representation Mike Jarvis was quoted as saying that he already earns more than two-tier workers at Detroit 3 auto plants.

What that suggests is that the UAW has been too accommodating to the Detroit 3 over the past decade, even before and after the government bailouts. The value proposition to VW workers just wasn't there.

For example, in the last negotiations in 2011, when the Detroit 3 were again profitable and clearly headed for years of strong vehicle sales, the UAW didn't even try to win a wage increase or battle the two-tier system.

Instead, the UAW under President Bob King meekly took additional profit-sharing and promised to get tougher in the 2015 round of talks.

As it turns out, that's going to be too late to win the hearts of VW Chattanooga workers.

Outside forces?

In the vote's aftermath, the UAW and its allies are blaming outside political interference for the defeat. But that's plain wrong.

Sure, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told a whopper that the plant would lose product if the UAW won. But VW management immediately corrected that rank manipulation. And you can trust that workers weren't unduly influenced by some billboards and words coming from other agenda-driven politicians.

No, the cards in this election were stacked in favor of the UAW and the union still lost.

VW all but opened the doors to the UAW. The company let the union campaign inside the plant, while it stayed neutral on the vote.

The UAW also far outspent any opponents to the union. It's no secret that the UAW's powerful strike fund has shrunk by tens of millions of dollars over the past three years as the union has poured time and money into organizing the transplants in the south.

Track record

The real reason the UAW lost is the union's decade-long track record of negotiating terms more favorable to the Detroit 3 than the hourly workers it represents.

During the bailouts, concessions were needed, especially an end to the Jobs Bank. But two-tier wages pre-dated the bailouts. And it's mind-boggling that veteran UAW auto workers will not have received a wage increase in 12 years by the time the current four-year agreement expires in 2015. Inflation has ravaged those wages over time.

In short, the UAW has swung the pendulum too far toward "cooperative partnership" and away from hard-nosed negotiating on behalf of members. All the UAW had to sell at VW Chattanooga were soft concepts such as worker democracy and strong health and safety standards that workers there already enjoy.

Presumed incoming UAW President Dennis Williams will have a chance in 2015 to reverse that trend.

If the UAW is ever to organize another non-Detroit 3 auto plant, Williams is going to need to get the balance right between worker needs and the health of the companies.

You can reach David Barkholz at dbarkholz@crain.com -- Follow David on Twitter: @barkholzatan

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