By Roger Bybee
Automaker Volkswagen has 63 plants around the world, and unions represent workers at all but three of them. Predictably, two of the exceptions are in China, where a prohibition on independent unions has led to low wages, creating a major labor magnet for U.S. and international firms.
After a fear-driven campaign concluded on Friday night, the third exception remains VW's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The United Auto Workers (UAW) lost a representation election held Feb. 12-14 by a vote of 712-626. But by retaining support among almost 47 percent of the workers -- even after a solid majority signed cards asking for union representation -- the UAW is in strong position to springboard to victory during the next election.
The UAW's majority support eroded under a sustained fear campaign that spooked enough workers into believing the union would cost them their jobs. In an unusual twist, the fear factor was injected into the Chattanooga vote not by Volkswagen, which maintained a stance of neutrality under pressure from the German union IG Metall. VW actually expressed willingness to set up a "works council" with the UAW in Tennessee, which would have given workers a stronger voice at the Chattanooga facility.
But anti-union public officials, business groups and rightwingers stepped into the election, seeing a UAW victory quite correctly as a threat to the entire Southern economic model. This Southern model, of a submissive and tightly controlled, non-union workforce that fights for low wages while local governments stay almost exclusively focused on doling out lavish corporate subsidies, has become a dominant U.S. corporate export, now popular in China, Mexico, and the rest of the global South.
The task of scaring Chattanooga workers was embraced by Tennessee Republicans, including Senator Bob Corker, Governor Bob Haslam, state legislative leaders and rightwing groups like Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. Their key message: A union victory at VW would mean the loss of future SUV jobs to Mexico (which VW forcefully denied), setting Chattanooga on an inevitable downward slide into "another Detroit."
This campaign did not just instill anxiety among the 1,550 VW workers, but it also to ratcheted up community pressure to oppose the union. Additional anxiety about the implications of a union victory was heightened when Haslam and legislative leaders declared that a UAW victory would endanger future subsidies to VW, which were equated with maintaining and creating more jobs.
Additionally, rightwing groups spent large sums to paint the UAW as an alien force that could bring dark, disruptive, destabilizing changes to the community rather than lifting up living standards, providing workers with a seat at the bargaining table, and giving ordinary citizens a voice in public issues. The UAW's personnel were instead depicted as "black-shirted thugs" who were, in the words of The Wall St. Journal's Stephen Moore, "inserting a cell into the body" and making it possible for "one cancer cell... to multiply and kill the body."
The Center for Worker Freedom, an organization created by Norquist, warned "the UAW wants your guns," a claim designed to startle the union's many hunting enthusiasts. Billboard messages from Norquist's group labeled the union as the "United Obama Workers." Others depicted Detroit in ruins, blaming the unions instead of telling the truth: That corporations had abandoned the city for China and Mexico.
With unionization at just 5.5 percent in Tennessee, workers and the public had little experience and precious little real-world information to counter the incessant claims of those lashing out at unionism. So, they lost.
In Chattanooga, the mounting national problem of low wages and inequality is especially acute. In Tennessee, the bottom 20 percent of citizens saw their incomes drop 12.1 percent in recent years, a trend that's been reflected across the South. Over half of the 225,000 jobs in Chattanooga are low-wage positions, according to Chattanooga activist Chris Brooks.
"At Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, workers earn about half the hourly wage of what unionized workers at GM and Ford take home," he pointed out. "When benefits are added, our local workers at the taxpayer-subsidized VW factory make $40 an hour less than their union counterparts in Germany."
At the moment, CEOs, pro-corporate Southern officials and the business press are gloating over the UAW defeat. Growing support for the UAW at plants like the Nissan operation in Canton, Mississippi  had already been generating concern. So anti-union forces in the South and across the U.S. are breathing a sigh of relief about the potential impact of a UAW victory in Chattanooga, and feeling sure that low wages will continue to prevail at 12 other foreign-owned auto "transplants" located across the South.
However, with the fault lines over income and the dignity of poor and working people becoming deeper every day, especially in the South, those who presume to rule should be wary. Earth-shaking movements drawn from those faults tend to be devastating, and almost always unpredictable.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based journalist whose work has appeared in, among others, The Progressive, Z Magazine, Progressive Populist, Extra!, American Prospect, Isthmus, and In These Times, for whom he blogs on labor issues at workinginthesetimes.com. He also teaches Labor Studies at the University of Illinois. Bybee edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.