February 21, 2014
Last week autoworkers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted down a proposal to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Fifty-three percent said “no” to the idea, even though Volkswagen did not actively oppose or support the vote.
While the automaker may have tried to stay on the sidelines of this debate, others did not. The UAW poured a lot of money and resources into the effort because this represented the best opportunity for it to unionize a plant in the new heart of automobile manufacturing—the South. Opponents, ranging from pro-business lobbying groups to in-state office holders, voiced their displeasure as loud as they could. Tennessee couldn’t afford to become another Detroit, they argued.
This won’t be much of a blog because I don’t think there is much news here, and I don’t have much of an opinion on it. All you have to do is look at the current state of unions, which kind of looks like a state of shambles. (The UAW alone has seen its membership decline by 42 percent since 2004.) There is a reason that foreign automakers and other manufacturers have elected to set up shop in the Southland over the past several decades: It has cheaper labor costs. The demise of the Rust Belt has as much to do with the rise of manufacturing in Dixie as it did with the emergence of manufacturing giants in Asia.
My dad was a union pipefitter until 1976 when Louisiana became a right-to-work state. He never accepted a “rat” job because he didn’t want to forego the union pension he had accumulated should he be caught working in a nonunion job. As a result, he began a multiyear search to find a new career, ultimately settling into a labor-type position at one of the many chemical plants that dot the Mississippi River in south Louisiana. He thought he had a good-paying career, until the voters of Louisiana decided otherwise. “C’est la vie,” as they might say in Louisiana if anyone still spoke French down there.
Today voters in places that were once union strongholds, like Wisconsin and Michigan, are putting politicians into place that are slowly loosening the grip of unions. That’s the way they voted. That’s now the way it is.
I will say that as unions have disappeared, so have the development pipelines for many trades. Manufacturing companies complain that schools just don’t do the job of training workers for their openings, but in all honesty, these educational institutions were set up to provide well-rounded educations to prepare students to pursue the careers they had interest in. Today, given the lack of job opportunities for young people, the goal is just to get a job—if students have any interest in working at all.
Could unions and their system of apprenticeships help to fill these vacancies in U.S. factories? Without a doubt, they could. However, they also bring very stringent work rules and often a large case of inflexibility. As a result, we have manufacturers struggling to find the right skilled candidates willing to work for the wages offered to them.
That’s the way things turned out. That’s now the way it is.