HOUSTON - The nation's labor leaders, gathered here for the annual winter meeting of the AFL-CIO's executive council, say that America's workers and their unions will not be deterred by the setback at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at that plant voted last week, 712 to 626, against having the United Auto Workers union represent them.
The vote came after three days of unprecedented pressure from outside groups including Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee who repeatedly claimed, on line and on the airwaves, that Volkswagen would open a new production line at the plant only if workers voted down the union. Volkswagen had denied that claim.
Workers were also bombarded with advertisements by well funded anti-union operations, including the Club for Growth and the National Right to Work (for less) Committee, claiming that it was the UAW that had "destroyed" Detroit and that the "same thing will happen here" if workers at the plant had decided to go union.
In a not-so-subtle appeal to racism, anti-government advocate Grover Norquist purchased billboards in Chattanooga that linked the UAW to support for President Barack Obama and to the downfall of Detroit. Such right-wing propaganda seemed to have an affect on workers who voted down UAW representation.
Some analysts also suggest the relatively high wages VW workers earn - reportedly about $20 an hour - coupled with the far-right attacks meant the level of workers' dissatisfaction with job conditions was lower than the concern about possibly losing their jobs. In addition, the $20 an hour is about the same pay rate as workers who were hired after 2009 at the unionized Big Three.
But UAW and other labor leaders vowed to continue the fight to organize. "I think it's a temporary setback," UAW President Bob King said. "One great thing about the UAW, one great thing about workers, is we don't quit."
"Unconscionably, what should have been a local workplace decision by workers and management was turned into an experiment in new forms of right wing zealotry over issues having nothing to do with how stakeholders decide for themselves the best way to build automobiles and create a strong Chattanooga community," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
"But make no mistake," Trumka added, "the closeness of the results and the courage and bravery of union supporters prove that this election was a minor setback, not a permanent defeat. The ferocity of the anti-union attack only reinforces the fact that we are seeing a wave of powerful new union organizing."
Volkswagen itself remained neutral in the election and indicated repeatedly it would have had no problem working with the union. Together with unions in Germany, the company's home country, and elsewhere, Volkswagen operates "works councils" in which workers and management make many decisions about company operation jointly. A victory for the UAW at the Chattanooga plant last week would have led to the establishment of a works council that would have been the first such model of labor-management relations in the United States.
"Chattanooga is the new Madison, Wisc. All of us must realize this kind of pressure from elected officials is unprecedented since the time the right to organize was enshrined into labor law in 1935," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.
The decision by Volkswagen's workers followed three days of voting during an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The outside interference was actually stepped up after the first day of voting, when it appeared that the union position was winning.
Union supporters said that after that first day, they thought they were ahead in the vote. The closeness of the vote suggests that the outside pressure could have swung the few dozen votes needed to deliver a union loss.
While blasting the right-wing attacks and interference, UAW leaders commended Volkswagen for agreeing to be "neutral," and the courage workers showed in standing up for their rights. Saying the union was "outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups" for interfering, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, who directs the union's transnational program, said, "we're proud that these workers were brave and stood up to the tremendous pressure. We hope this will start a larger discussion about workers' right to organize."
Commenting on the vote and its impact on organizing drives in low-wage industries, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said, "This setback won't stop working people from coming together for a better future whether its auto workers, fast food workers, Walmart workers or health care workers. If we join together we have strength in numbers to raise wages and make improvements to the entire economy."
UAW's King said the union intends to press ahead with its drive to organize at other foreign owned plants across the South, including the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. Union organizers are determined to break the anti-union lock on the South, understanding that it would improve conditions for workers not just in the South but all over the country.
Teresa Albano contributed to this story.
Photo: In this 2012 photo, an employee works on a Passat sedan at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP /Erik Schelzig)