February 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

LABOR ISSUES

On heels of southern defeat, UAW needs a reset

UAW President Bob King needs to go back to the drawing board, Beckmann writes. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

On the heels of the UAW’s stinging rejection for representation of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., it might be time for the Detroit-based labor union to reassess its strategies.

As the union has grown more and more ideological — and bolted to the extreme left on every political issue — its membership continues to decline, down 75 percent since 1979.

While the major drop in its number of represented workers can be traced to retrenchment in the economically impacted auto industry, the union’s activism has done nothing to help its cause.

Michigan has missed out on numerous opportunities to land the construction of new foreign auto plants by carmakers like Honda, Toyota, BMW, and Nissan — even VW moved out of the state — because the companies didn’t want to build in a location that required workers to join a union. In other words, those firms didn’t want to deal with the UAW.

UAW President Bob King (who became the father of Right-To-Work legislation in Michigan because his subterfuge over a ballot proposal in 2012 energized opponents of mandatory union representation) began his tenure in 2010 with numerous speeches that were critical of profitable businesses.

Even his own bio at the union’s website emphasizes his “activism and passionate belief in social and economic justice.”

That’s included in the second sentence, ahead of any of his considerable earlier labor accomplishments in negotiating good contracts for the men and women he represents within the UAW.

King’s UAW spent two years and an estimated $5 million in its efforts to unionize the VW workers down south, and they even enjoyed the tacit support of the carmaker’s German executives who operate in conjunction with a union-like jobs council back home in the motherland.

The union organized plant appearances by black-shirted outside operatives in goggles to follow workers around on the plant floor in their best efforts to pressure a “yes” vote on joining the UAW. And yet workers said “no” in a 712-626 vote.

Why? People vote, in political elections and elsewhere, according to their own self interest. Clearly, a majority of the VW workers didn’t see the benefit of handing over a portion of their earnings in dues to an activist union while they had no major complaint with their employer or the benefits they currently receive from VW.

King and his supporters blamed outside influences for the setback.

It’s true that Republican politicos tried to convince the workers that union rejection was the best course, but most of their statements — including those of U.S. Senator Bob Corker — centered on the possibility that approval of the union might negatively impact the construction of a future VW plant in Tennessee to build SUVs.

While impossible to quantify the impact of such remarks, it’s difficult to imagine that the current workers, with their own wallets in mind, voted the way they did because they were worried about that project ahead of their own well being.

And now the head of VW’s German works council, ahead of efforts to somehow reverse the Chattanooga vote, is going a step further while engaging in the same sort of rhetoric.

Bernd Osterloh, whose group has a major voice in VW’s corporate decisions from Germany, threatened to block construction of that new SUV plant in Tennessee unless the current Chattanooga workers wind up in a union.

If Corker had made such a threat, he’d be accused of a war on middle class jobs and intimidation of workers.

The UAW is expected to claim just that at the National Labor Relations Board, which has not yet certified the election results.

Former NLRB chairman Peter Schaumber told me that despite the statements of politicians, he doesn’t believe the union’s claims of intimidation, he doesn’t believe the argument will be persuasive.

“Volkswagen consistently told the workers throughout the campaign and before that the decision on whether they would make a second vehicle in Chattanooga would be made entirely irrespective of how they voted in the election,” Schaumber said on my WJR radio show.

“Immediately after Sen. Corker made his remark, VW’s President came out and…(said) that the senator was wrong,” added Schaumber.

From the ashes of the unsuccessful campaign comes an obvious truth for the UAW, which now faces almost certain defeat in trying to organize workers at other foreign auto plants in the south.

The union might want to spend more time concentrating its efforts on convincing workers, without the attempted intimidation of the black shirts, about the benefits of joining the union, and less time working on ideological and one-sided political (Democrat) efforts because every American worker is concerned about his own pocketbook but not every one agrees with the politics of UAW leadership.

Frank Beckmann is host of “The Frank Beckmann Show” on WJR-AM (760) from 9 a.m. to noon Monday-Friday.