February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

LABOR ISSUES

America, don't write UAW's epitaph just yet

The UAW took a major loss in Tennessee, but the union's hopes of 21st century relevance aren't dead yet. (Dan Henry / AP)

If we were to employ the logic of the right to work movement, the UAW should have garnered 626 new members at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After all, if a minority of employees can opt out of a union in a union shop, then a minority of employees should be able to opt for union membership in a non-union shop.

Alas, consistency is not a trait of the right to work movement. And the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga remains non-union per the 712 votes against union membership over the 626 votes in favor of the union.

But this setback in Tennessee should not be viewed as the epitaph of the United Auto Workers .

True, the UAW has dwindled from its peak 1.5 million members in 1979 to 390,000 active members as of 2010. And it has not been able to organize Asian or European transplants in non-union areas.

The UAW’s most recent defeat is all the more telling when considering Volkswagen did not employ anti-union tactics in the months leading up to the vote (as had Nissan and Honda in prior union drives). On the other hand, the vote was close and union forces were heavily countered by Tennessee’s Republican establishment (which made all kind of threats in the event the workers voted in favor of the union).

But the UAW should by no means give up on organizing drives at Asian and European transplants in America. Rather than a change of tactics, the UAW should employ a change in rhetoric. Unions are a tough sell in formerly depressed areas now enjoying the economic benefits of foreign transplants. These are workers who have never had it better and they are reluctant to rock the boat with unionization.

But these same workers would not enjoy any of the wages and benefits now forthcoming were the Asian and European plants in America not haunted by what they see as the specter of the UAW. Indeed, keeping the UAW out is the very reason these companies extend such wages and benefits. That is why a vibrant UAW is in the interest of all auto workers, foreign transplants as well as domestic. Were the UAW to wither away, so too would all the advantages workers now enjoy at the foreign transplants. The UAW must drive home this message harder in future organization drives.

Of course, employees at the Asian and European plants in America are generally aware that their wages and benefits are kept high due to the presence of the UAW. What the UAW must do, therefore, is urge these employees not to take the union for granted and convince them that a viable labor movement is good for everybody. The UAW must make it loud and clear: No union, no high wages or benefits, whether at a foreign transplant or a domestic auto maker.

But the biggest step the UAW must take, if it really wants to organize the Asian and European plants in America, is to relax its protectionist rhetoric in favor of free trade. The UAW will never be able to make its case to employees at Asian and European plants in America while demonizing foreign competition. The UAW must demonstrate its own willingness to welcome employees at Asian and European plants into the family of American workers.

When writing about the UAW, it is hard not to invoke the legacy of Walter Reuther. Today’s union organizers must remember how Reuther did not quit trying to organize workers at Ford between the time of the bloody Battle of the Overpass in 1937 to the collective bargaining agreement reached with Ford in 1941. (By the way, Reuther was also a staunch free trader.)

To be sure, the UAW’s latest defeat hurts. But it isn’t fatal.

John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer and a member of AFSCME Local 3309 in Wayne County.