February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

UAW couldn't overcome reputation in VW vote

Volkswagen AG’s top labor official says efforts to get the United Auto Workers into the German automaker’s Tennessee plant will continue despite last week’s vote rejecting union representation.

“All options will be examined,” Bernd Osterloh, a member of VW’s governing supervisory board, told Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German daily. But the decision is not up to Osterloh, or VW’s management, or the IG Metall and UAW leaders blaming Republicans among their excuses for the stinging rebuke.

It’s up to VW’s roughly 1,300 Chattanooga employees who live and work in the real world. That reality includes the UAW’s record of sharply declining membership, growing plant closures and exploding legacy costs that culminated five years ago in epic bankruptcies of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.

Those are facts that happened far more recently than union organizers want to acknowledge. And there is nothing the UAW, or its friends in labor, the Democratic Party and the National Labor Relations Board, can do to change that record or the culture of confrontation largely anathema to modern-day labor-management cooperation in the new South.

Welcome to the newest challenge facing Detroit institutions, from the UAW and its automakers to a City Hall gutting through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy: they insist they’ve changed, that bad habits of the past are past. But a history of ballooning post-war entitlements and dubious competitiveness are burdens proving difficult to shed.

Why should it be otherwise to outsiders looking in? Detroit is the well-established epicenter of modern-day bankruptcy, home to the nation’s largest corporate workout (at the time) under a special section of Chapter 11, a monster Chapter 9 case still very much alive, and a union whose membership has collapsed along with it all.

Reputations built over decades die hard. As much as Detroit, writ large, may believe its leaders are beginning to build a new Detroit — one that prizes cooperation over confrontation, that agrees success should be shared, that understands a profitable, competitive enterprise is the best path to job security — there is no guarantee the rest of the country yet believes it is possible here.

The easy money tends to bet otherwise, as a majority did in Chattanooga. Meaning Detroit’s automakers, their balance sheets rebuilt and their break-even points lowered, will squander prosperity like they have in the past. Or that the UAW will use good times to press for contract give-backs that would include unwinding the second-tier wage for new hires.

Or that the city, mired in the humiliation and pain of bankruptcy restructuring, will revert to the broken political culture that drove a continuing exodus of residents and persuaded anyone who cared to look that Detroiters cannot mend their broken ways.

Unfair? Maybe. But it should be understandable. That’s why UAW President Bob King’s decision to press ahead with the VW vote is as inexplicable as it is vintage King. Here was an allegedly global vision abetted by German execs and rooted in transnational labor theory clashing with the burdens of unbecoming history weighing on Detroit and the UAW.

History won, 712-626.

King cannot deny the defeat anymore than he can deny the gamble that culminated in Michigan becoming the nation’s 23rd right-to-work state. In a bid to protect the institutional union, whose lifeblood is dues flow, he pressed for an amendment to the state constitution that would bar right-to-work legislation.

He lost that, too, giving Michigan’s Republican leaders the pretext they needed (or wanted) to put right-to-work legislation on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk. In Tennessee, Republicans unencumbered by VW’s self-imposed gag order greeted the prospect of a UAW victory with a predictable flash of political muscle that has labor crying foul.

What did King expect from the state that gave the U.S. Senate Bob Corker? The UAW’s VW vote was all about taking the first step toward revitalizing the auto part of the UAW, of beginning to draw the ranks manning foreign-owned auto plants into the union fold.

This should have been the easy one. From Chattanooga to Wolfsburg, VW’s management was complicit and quiet, a testament to King’s debatable globetrotting and the influence of powerful IG Metall union leaders on the German automaker’s supervisory board.

VW gave “neutrality” new meaning. Theirs morphed into a sort of unconditional surrender, a thumb on the scale of recognition that is unlikely to be repeated by Nissan, Toyota or other potential “transplant” targets down south.

Collusion couldn’t close the deal, which says just how heavily recent history weighs on the case for the UAW in an American South still practicing the secret ballot.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.