Column: Workers reject UAW, again

F. Vincent Vernuccio

Employees at Ohio’s Fuyao Glass America plant voted this month against the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. The final tally was 886 to 441 — a devastating loss for a union that desperately needed a win.

The consequences of the loss will be felt far beyond the Ohio border.

Private-sector union membership continues at a historic low of less than 6.5 percent, according to Labor Department data. This isn’t for lack of trying: In addition to the Fuyao loss, the UAW suffered an embarrassing (and expensive) loss this summer at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, where workers decisively rejected the union’s pitch.

The union left nothing to chance in Ohio, rolling out endorsements from Dayton’s mayor, State Rep. Fred Strahorn, and a handful of other political figures. (On the flip side, 15 state representatives signed a letter warning against “outside forces” coming into the plant.) The UAW’s primary focus was not workers’ politics, but their workplace safety. The Fuyao plant had faced past scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the UAW said it could help fix what ails the plant.

Unfortunately for the UAW, it was not the most credible advocate for worker safety. Between 2000 and 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had a partnership with the UAW at plants for a “Big Three” company where it represented workers. The union’s safety track record at some of these plants was best-described as abysmal. At plants in Kansas City and Dearborn, the safety violation rate was nearly four times the industry average.

The UAW had to contend with a widening corruption investigation focused on its executives, in what was described as a “sophisticated money laundering scheme.” The alleged activities include steering over a million dollars in funding earmarked for worker training towards perks for union executives. The Detroit News said the scandal offered “insight into the UAW’s top ranks and its culture of six-figure paychecks” and “liberal expense accounts.”

The UAW also had to explain its unflattering historical record. The Moraine plant that the UAW tried to organize used to produce automobiles, and in fact had been one of GM”s “most productive and cooperative factories” until it closed in 2008. According to the Wall Street Journal, the UAW struck a deal with GM that shut the 2,500 Moraine workers out of the auto recovery, barring them from a transfer to another plant. Why? The employees weren’t part of the UAW.

This is the kind of short-sighted behavior that causes employees to think twice about the UAW — and not just in Ohio. The UAW is engaged in an organizing drive at a plant in Fremont, Calif., despite the fact that it was twice contributed to that plant’s closure — once in 1982 and again in 2010. Not surprisingly, only a handful of employees have publicly associated themselves with the union’s organizing drive.

The lasting legacy of the loss at Fuyao may not be the vote itself, but some of the union’s desperate last-minute tactics. The New York Times reported that the UAW “challenged the eligibility of workers it believed were not permanent employees” — in this case, by targeting workers with a Chinese surname. The company criticized it as xenophobic to toss out votes “based on where this union thinks they were born.”

Wherever the union decides to venture next, workers would be wise to think twice before believing its promises.

F. Vincent Vernuccio is a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.