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Jun 2014
06
June 06, 2014

Ding Dong, the Union’s Dead . . . or is it?


Voting for union representation of Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. ended on Feb. 14.  The United Auto Workers thought they would be getting a nice Valentine’s Day gift from VW’s employees. After all, VW largely remained neutral in the union campaign that preceded the election.  In fact, the company gave the union unprecedented access to its facilities and to its employees. 

According to The New York Times, a VW official stated:  “We know from many discussions with our colleagues in Chattanooga that there is great interest on the part of workers to establish worker representation inside the plant.”

So, of course, the UAW thought they were going to win. You see, Cupid was on their side and a match between the UAW and VW on Valentine’s Day was inevitable. How sweet. And then something unexpected happened. Cupid fired his little arrow and Cupid missed. The UAW lost the election by a final vote of 712 to 626. Close, but still a loss.

And, of course, the prognosticators pounced. 

Surely, finally, this is the death of organized labor in the United States. Union membership in the private sector is at its lowest point since, well, since ever. Private sector unionization is running right around 6 percent of the workforce now, down from somewhere around 35 percent in the heyday of unionism. And the UAW lost an election at a plant where management, if they didn’t actively invite the union in, certainly remained as neutral as any management in known memory. You can almost envision little men in furry hats dancing around the melted puddle of the UAW singing, “Ding Dong, the Union’s Dead.” And if that doesn’t date me, nothing does.

But before we start shoveling dirt over the union movement in the U.S., let’s take a look at what happened in Tennessee. 

First of all, politicians and other “outsiders” got involved in this union campaign very early on, in a big way and with big money. 

According to USA TODAY, a prominent anti-tax lobbyist and a group called “Center for Worker Freedom” rented dozens of billboards “trumpeting anti-union messages. . . .  One shows an image of the long-abandoned Packard Plant ruins with the message: ‘Detroit: Brought to You by the UAW.’”  

State Senator Bo Watson, a Republican from Chattanooga, said in a statement, “Should the workers choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”

According to Reuters, “U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said he has been ‘assured’ that if workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in his hometown of Chattanooga reject United Auto Worker representation, the company will reward the plant with a new product to build.”

Now, if VW management had said either of these things, it would have been an unfair labor practice.

So, there was some pretty heavy duty anti-union campaigning, that’s not all that unusual. Anything else? Funny you should ask; yes, there is something else. The union was the UAW.  You have to admit that the UAW does not have the best reputation right now. 

I’ll bet there are a bunch of people who do blame the UAW for the state of the auto industry and don’t give them any credit for the comeback we are currently seeing. And others point to the loss of jobs in the industry over the past decade or so and wonder what value they are getting for their buck.  Maybe that is why the UAW dropped its objections to the election.

So, is unionism dead in the United States?  Can we ignore this stuff now?  Do we need to worry about being organized?  I don’t know if I would say we have to worry, but I sure wouldn’t ignore threats or rumors of unionization, thinking they will just go away. 

What you should do is what we have always advised you to do: Treat your employees with respect and be open and honest with them. You don’t necessarily have to give them more money or better benefits. What you do need to do is make sure they feel like they have a voice. That they can talk to you about what bothers them. That they make a difference. And you need to train your supervisors to know this. 

I have written about this before and it is important enough that I will say it again. A supervisor’s job is not to make more bumpers, or brake pads, or cars, for that matter. A supervisor’s job is to motivate and inspire people to do a better job and make sure he or she has happy people who are satisfied with their work so that they in turn can be more productive and make better bumpers, or break pads, or cars in a more cost-effective manner to contribute to the bottom line. You can read the whole article here: http://wnj.com/Publications/Human-Resources-Alert-(13).

That leaves the question: Are unions dead?  I don’t think so. They may just be dying. The problem is, it won’t take too many missteps to  bring them back to life.

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