How the UAW Lost Tennessee

Gaming U.S. Labor Law Failed to Overcome Worker Opposition

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Foreign automakers located in the South, known in the industry as transplants, have long been a target of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union’s organizing strategy. For the UAW, unionizing transplants may be a matter of survival, as membership has fallen from a high in 1979 of 1.5 million to under 400,000 today. In 2011, at the union’s legislative conference, UAW President Bob King said, “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW—I really don’t.” That same year, he ramped up the union’s efforts by pledging $60 million to unionize transplants.

Yet despite the $60 million investment, the UAW has repeatedly failed to organize employees at factories owned by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai Motor Co., Kia, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. Nissan workers in Tennessee rejected UAW representation by a two-to-one ratio twice, in 1989 and 2001.

When the UAW has faced opposition from transplants in the South, it has resorted to intimidation, including public relation smear campaigns, protests, and recruiting progressive allies to pressure the company targeted for unionization. Through this coordinated intimidation, known as a “corporate campaign,” the union seeks to get the employer to sign what is known as a neutrality agreement. Such agreements set the terms of the union election, require the company not to oppose the union’s organizing campaign, and almost always include a card check provision, which allows a workforce to be unionized without a secret ballot election.

Card check invariably leads to worker harassment and intimidation because union organizers pressure and even deceive workers into signing the cards, out in the open. If union organizers can get 50 percent plus one of the workers to sign cards, then 100 percent of the workers lose their right to a secret ballot election. Without a secret ballot election, workers are deprived of the time to consider, on their own and without outside pressure, whether they want to authorize a union to represent them. Thus, labor law should protect that right more strongly than it does now.