DEATH KNELL

Posted in Rants on February 16th, 2014 by Ed

Most issues in politics are contentious, but not not all of them are contested. Some issues have been effectively won by one side. The issue of gun control, for example, might as well be declared over since Heller and the non-response to Newtown. You need not like the NRA or buy their arguments to recognize that they've won on the issue. They've won in Congress, in court, and in the realm of public opinion (Most Americans' positions on the 2nd Amendment consist of verbatim NRA talking points). Anti-gun groups will continue to fight when the opportunity arises, but doing so serves a symbolic function at best. The outcome is predetermined.

I think it's time to add the battle to save American labor unions to that list of lost causes.

If you've been following the efforts to unionize Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant – Autoblog's coverage has been extensive and remarkably impartial – you understand that the Detroit Free Press is being charitable by describing the No vote as a "devastating defeat" for the UAW. The auto industry has been migrating southward for decades, lured to places like Chattanooga by massive subsidies, lower wages, and a docile, anti-labor workforce. The Chattanooga plant was the UAW's first major campaign to unionize a Southern plant. Volkswagen is unusually pro-union (Chattanooga is its only non-union plant in the world, and the No campaign was led not by the company but by the usual rogue's gallery of right wing bagmen and sycophants). Despite the favorable setup, or at least a setup as favorable as any likely to be found in the South, the drive failed – 712 opposed and 626 in favor with 89% of eligible workers participating.

The UAW and the other once-mighty industrial unions in this country have been in decline for four decades as a result of a combination of factors including anti-union rhetoric from the right, mainstreaming of a "business friendly" attitude toward regulation and the labor market, overseas competition, and the restructuring of tariff and trade policies to make it appealing to manufacture in low wage countries. Had the UAW been able to declare victory at Chattanooga, they might have had a chance to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing Southern auto industry. Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes are in Alabama. Nissan and Toyota are in Mississippi. BMW is in South Carolina. Kia has a nation-sized complex in rural western Georgia. To be able to unionize in Chattanooga and arm future campaigns with the fact that the UAW did not spell the end of all life in Tennessee as right wingers claim would have been a boon. Instead the UAW appears to have lost its last, best chance to stop the bleeding.

The efforts by Republican bottom feeders to sway the outcome of the vote were vile even by their standards. TN state legislators were making the most bizarre of threats – to vote to end tax breaks for VW, as if that is something Republican state legislators are interested in or capable of doing. Bob Corker, aiming to prove that he is a shitheel of historic proportions, violated Federal labor law by announcing on the first day of the vote that he had "secret information" about VW planning to expand the plant if only the UAW could be kept out. In reality VW has been planning to expand in Chattanooga for years, as anyone who follows the auto industry even casually knows, in order to satisfy demand for the Passat and new CUV models to meet the company's ambitious new global sales goals.

In reality I think the efforts of the Peanut Gallery to manipulate the vote were meaningless. Auto plants are popping up all over the South specifically because the local workforce is anti-union and they don't need any last second shenanigans from Bob Corker to prejudice them against the UAW. Besides, everyone in that factory knows damn well that VW is at capacity and will be expanding it soon. It is informative to see how mendacious and low class Republican elected officials are willing to be in the context of a labor organizing effort, but I honestly believe that this vote, prior to which VW provided the UAW with open access to the Chattanooga facility to campaign directly to the workforce, reflects the desires of the people who voted. The anti-union leanings of the labor pool in a place like Chattanooga is one of the selling points of the South, after all.

The question is not where the UAW goes from here, because it is perfectly clear where the UAW is going. It will continue along the same path it has been traveling since the 1970s, losing membership to attrition, age, and the shifting political wind. Union membership seems to hit a new record low in the U.S. labor force every year and it's hard to see how that trend is going to be reversed. The Democrats do little more than pay lip service to organized labor. Republicans are almost cartoonishly vicious in their opposition to the idea. And the average American has absorbed enough anti-union rhetoric over the last thirty years that I can't fathom how even to begin to dislodge any of it. If the UAW even exists in another thirty years it will be as a shell of itself. I wouldn't argue with an assertion that it already is, for that matter.

If Chattanooga didn't work, Mississippi and Alabama and South Carolina certainly aren't going to work. I'm a proponent of organized labor and unionization but realistically I think it's a lost cause at this point. Our working conditions, wages/benefits, and standard of living are going to have to sink much lower, unfortunately, before the unions can start fighting back with a chance to win. Don't worry. We'll get there soon enough with this attitude that we'll be better off if everyone earns less.