One hundred and fifty years ago an invading Union army was halted at Chattanooga by the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. The Battle of Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest days of the entire Civil War, and a resounding defeat for the Northern forces. Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union— an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has its heart set on organizing Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, which employs several thousand and supports thousands more throughout the Southeast.
There’s a reason the UAW covets VW’s gleaming new Passat factory. Previous efforts to organize Nissan and Toyota plants in Mississippi and Tennessee failed, and so the UAW is looking to Volkswagen as perhaps its last best hope to stop the hemorrhage of its membership: since its peak in 1978, UAW ranks have plummeted 74 percent. Not surprisingly, the decline of the UAW has coincided with the decline of the industry it cannibalized. As Reuters reported in 2011: “Since 2001, the Detroit Three have slashed over 200,000 jobs, eliminating more than 60 percent of their hourly work force.”
Looking at the long term, industry-wide trend, it’s fairly clear that UAW-imposed labor costs contributed significantly to the financial ruin of the once-great Detroit auto industry. Citizens of Chattanooga should be aware that the UAW already successfully organized a Volkswagen plant, and the results were disastrous.
In 1978 Volkswagen opened its Westmoreland Assembly Plant near New Stanton, PA. The facility employed some 5,700 workers, producing 1.15 million vehicles until it closed in 1988. As the New York Times reported in 1992:
The one [foreign-owned] plant that had U.A.W. representation, Volkswagen A.G.'s ill-fated plant in New Stanton, Pa., began with a strike and lurched from problem to problem before closing...” The problems, including these recurring strikes, forced the plant to halt production on numerous occasions—within the first 20 months of operation workers staged 6 walk-outs protesting for, among other things, higher wages. It was too much even for some of the workers. Ex-plant employee, Kenneth Cramer, Jr. was quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune saying that the UAW agitations had left him with “a bad taste for unions.
Volkswagen, too, had a bad taste in their mouth after their Pennsylvania experience. This is one of the reasons why when it came time to open another American facility 20 years later, the company chose right-to-work Tennessee, where union power is not so nearly entrenched. Back in Pennsylvania, the town of New Stanton was devastated economically and psychologically after the union forced VW out. Lloyd Marker, former assembly line worker, recalled the plant’s closing as “a disaster":
It was tough. People didn't want to hire us [after we lost our VW jobs]. They thought we wouldn't work because we were used to high wages.
Those supposedly high wages were, of course, what the UAW had demanded and which helped make the plant financially unsustainable, leaving Marker and thousands like him with no wages whatsoever. And the job losses triggered a host of social pathologies. In the wake of Volkswagen’s shutdown, New Stanton experienced a spike in alcoholism, divorce and hopelessness. The Pittsburgh Tribune reported in 2008:
Depression rendered some workers unable to cope with the shutdown. Former workers still talk about a string of suicides, including a single mother who hanged herself and a man who shot himself on the road leading to the plant.
No wonder Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd warns that unionization “will be like a cancer on [Chattanooga’s] economic growth.” Indeed it would be, though perhaps an infection is a more apt metaphor, an infection borne by an invading union force from the North. One hundred and fifty years ago, the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Let their descendants go now and do likewise.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, May 18, 2013.