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February 22, 2014

Column: Auto workers union stumbles in southern vote

The United Auto Workers’ failed invasion of the South has all the earmarks of the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy mixed with more than a touch of anti-unionism inherent in the region’s distrust of collective bargaining led by outsiders.

The hourly workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant surprised UAW leaders in an election they thought was in the bag and the first step to organizing foreign auto plants throughout the South. They had based their optimism on the fact VW said it would not oppose the plan and that workers would be seduced by the establishment of a joint management/worker council that would have serious input into operations.

What the UAW apparently missed somehow was the longstanding animosity toward unions in that part of the country where independence is a cherished concept and suspicion of outside influence from the North is virulent. Many workers apparently were convinced that the UAW had a big hand in what had occurred in Detroit. It would be hard to argue otherwise although management deserves at least an equal share in the decline of the U.S. auto industry over three decades.

Unions thrive when working conditions are inadequate and often oppressive. The industrial revolution that saw the creation of America’s might in heavy industry was replete with examples of the maltreatment and exploitation of the American work force. As the automobile became the driving force in the American economy, the United Auto Workers under the Reuther brothers (Walter, Victor and Roy) fought valiantly to increase the share of the benefits for those doing the work. They were almost too successful, ultimately raising wages and benefits and retirement programs to a level that left the companies far less able to meet the world competition that was to come.

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