United Auto Workers throws in the towel in Tennessee

More than just a tactical defeat, this might be a watershed moment in the history of organized labor, as Reuters reports the United Auto Workers has dropped its challenge against a pivotal February election in Tennessee:

The United Auto Workers union on Monday said it was withdrawing its objection claiming undue outside political interference in the result of a February election it lost among workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in Tennessee.

UAW President Bob King, in a statement issued by the union on Monday, said the process of objecting to the National Labor Relations Board could have dragged on for months if not years.

King and the UAW announced the withdrawal on the morning of the scheduled start of an NLRB hearing in Chattanooga on the union’s objection.

The UAW has had no success in trying to get workers at automotive plants owned by foreign companies in the U.S. South to agree to join the union in an area where membership has fallen over the last several decades. Volkswagen officials agreed not to work against the UAW and allowed the union direct access to workers at the plant during work hours, a rarity by companies in a UAW organizing drive, which he union hoped would increase its chances of victory.

But in a Feb 12-14 election, workers voted 712-to-626 against allowing the UAW to represent them.

The union alleged “outside interference” in the election based on the Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, saying that financial incentives to Volkswagen were at risk if the UAW became the workers’ representatives, while Republican Sen. Bob Corker worried that Volkswagen would cancel plant expansions if their labor force unionized.  The Associated Press adds that Corker “later blamed the UAW appeal – and the resulting delay in certifying the results of the union election – for putting a hold on expansion talks at the plant.”

Even with the Obama-stacked union-friendly composition of the National Labor Relations Board, the UAW didn’t think its challenge stood a chance?  That’s huge, especially since there was more to it than the risible assertion that everyone other than union representatives needs to shut up during a union election.  What Haslam and Corker said was debatable, but not unrealistic, particularly given that Volkswagen does indeed seem to have delayed plant expansions until the organizing election was completely resolved.  (More dubious were claims that Volkswagen would surely send new operations pouring into Tennessee if the organizing vote failed, a promise made more unequivocally by local politicians than VW executives.)  There’s nothing wrong with warning voters about the possible consequences of such an election, or with pro-union forces challenging the likelihood of those consequences coming to pass.

But the UAW was also trying to subpoena documents related to Gov. Haslam, and other state politicians, linking financial incentives for Volkswagen directly to the outcome of the union election.  That might have been either legally questionable or, even if perfectly legal, useful political fodder.  For the union to withdraw its challenge at literally the eleventh hour – one hour before NLRB hearings were set to begin – suggests they got some bad news about where all this was heading.  They must have decided the political and public-relations cost of dragging out the challenge, making Volkswagen and other employers nervous about creating jobs in the state, outweighed both the chances of overturning the election and scoring media points during the hearings.

As labor laws are currently construed, the UAW seemed to have a fairly solid challenge against the outcome of the February election… and that election seemed quite winnable for them, given Volkswagen’s extraordinary degree of cooperation with union organizers.  On the other hand, the company always said it wanted to create a “worker’s council,” essentially an internal mechanism for its workforce to organize and have a say in major corporate decisions – a promise that evidently appealed to employees who have seen what Big Labor did to Detroit.

Sen. Corker said the sudden withdrawal of the UAW complaint proves it was a “sideshow” all along.  The UAW is calling upon Gov. Haslam and his legislature to quickly approve the incentives for Volkswagen they said were contingent upon the organizing vote’s failure, to prove they were serious about those promises.  The union hasn’t withdrawn its objections to what it still describes as a “tainted” election, but it now seeks political remedies in the somewhat forbidding ground of Congress, where it hopes it can organize an investigation into outside interference with the Tennessee election.  Democrats nervous about the midterm election might not be eager to sign on to that crusade.

This is a huge loss for the old model of organized labor.  Between the difficulty of organizing workers worried about high unemployment and corporate collapse, and their dissatisfaction with ObamaCare, unions don’t seem to be doing terribly well in the New Normal.