Houston Politicians and the in-plant anti-union committee at Volkswagen in Chattanooga were both chortling and celebrating the announcement that the UAW had withdrawn its election objections before the NLRB hearing on the issues raised in its recent, narrow defeat. They are laughing too soon. They are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession, rather than the more accurate understanding that this is a huge signal from the UAW that they are in fact deepening their commitment to keeping the campaign alive for a second shot at an election.
There are never any future guarantees in organizing about when the time might be right to go another round, but the UAW at the crossroads faced two choices. One was to fully engage on the legal struggle around their objections and run the clock out for years in back-and-forth appeals. This is usually the “long game” after an election defeat where basically the union tries to save face institutionally and to maintain other organizing efforts by giving organizers and leaders’ talking points framed on the notion that there’s still a heartbeat, that justice will be done, and hope is a plan. It’s a sad organizing strategy since even miraculously winning a second election after years would have tended to alienate the workforce, making a better result difficult.
The other choice, which is bolder organizing, is to immediately get the clock ticking for a second election, and this is clearly what the UAW is doing, signally in truth that they are committed to the campaign and in fact that they like their chances inside the plant and, perhaps as importantly, with Volkswagen. You can bet that UAW organizers have done extensive work in the last three months to reassess their “yes” votes and gauge the hardness of the “no” votes and whether they can turn them if they can offset the onset of fear and panic before the last vote count. You can also bet that UAW leaders have had extensive discussions with Volkswagen union leaders in Germany, who have board seats in the company, about how a second election would work and how the company would react. The signs have obviously been encouraging on both counts.
The clock works this way. The election was February 14th. A second election could be held at the earliest in only nine more months, and the UAW could file as early as mid-January, only eight months away. With a unit of a couple of thousand, that’s like tomorrow!
The other reason it is easy to read the UAW’s intentions can be found in their statements upon the withdrawal. Shrewdly, they withdrew by laying down the gauntlet to the Tennessee governor and local business establishment to hurry up and restore the $300 million in incentives for VW to locate a new SUV line in Chattanooga which would add another 1000 workers to the mix. This is a win-win for the UAW. It gets them back into the framework of being a job creator rather than a job threat, which had sunk their first vote. If the Governor and the union baiters can’t convince VW to add the line, they are losers, bullies, and blowhards, and the UAW doesn’t have that problem on its shoes. Moving the campaign right now to restore the commitments to add the line also turns the bargaining power from the politicians back to the company and its allies. The UAW is no company union, but any Tennessee politicians have to know that VW is not going to add 1000 workers in Chattanooga without a behind the scenes commitment that the pols and the local chamber will keep out of its employee relations in the plant. This time the Governor and the locals may have to decide if they want a 1000 jobs more than they hate the union. If the line doesn’t get added by VW, then the Governor and the union-haters are defanged in a 2nd election. If the line does get added, there will categorically be non-interference concessions privately made to the company, the UAW will have publicly been on the right side in advocating for more jobs, and will face a second election, the workers willing, on much, much stronger ground. And, they will face it with the same workforce on the re-run election, because even if a plant is added, it won’t be ready in nine months or even two years in all likelihood. None of this is to say that there won’t be bombast from the peanut gallery, but it will be a distant hum in the background in a second election, not in the workers’ faces as they go to vote.
Does this kill off the other UAW organizing efforts with transplants in Mississippi with Nissan and with Mercedes-Benz in Alabama? Of course not. Both of those drives have been multi-year commitments by the UAW already and will continue to be. Neither from all reports are anywhere near ready to go forward now, so at this point the UAW will try to rebuild its momentum with its battle-tested committee in Chattanooga, who must correctly feel that they weathered the worst the opposition could throw at them and came within 100 votes, have reassessed their yeses and maybes, and are hunkered down for another run at a second election. Best for the UAW to wait for the momentum to change with a win, and let Mississippi and Alabama continue to toughen up so they can be ready to capitalize on a VW victory.
There are no guarantees, but all signs indicate the UAW has now made a decision that it is in it to win it for as long as it takes. Good news for workers in the South and everywhere!