Retail Front

Union Loses Second Battle of Chattanooga


The UAW vows to rise up and fight again. But it should reevaluate venturing into hostile territory.

The Battle of Chattanooga in 1863 was a turning point for the Union during the Civil War.

Ulysses Grant soundly defeated the Confederates at Lookout Mountain. This led to Sherman’s march through the South and the burning of Atlanta.

Last week, there was another major Battle of Chattanooga. This time it was the union that lost, as the United Auto Workers failed to organize at a plant owned by Volkswagen, one of many international automakers with production facilities in the South.

With membership down 75% since 1980, a desperate UAW needs an infusion of new members to remain viable and to give it a renewed sense of relevancy.

Tennessee is one of the more unionized states in the South, particularly in Chattanooga. It seemed like the best strategic place for the UAW to mount an offensive.

Everyone was watching every move. No one can claim this election wasn’t closely monitored. The final tally: 712 against, 626 for.

VW wisely chose not to fight the union, but rather allowed its workers to settle the issue. VW and the UAW went so far as to agree to incorporate a European-style works council, a collaborative employee-management board. 

The union claims politicians influenced the election, but there was pressure from third parties on both sides of the issues.

Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, Honda, BMW and other international nameplates have invested huge amounts of money in production facilities in Southern states that were in desperate need of such economic development.

If organizing the $1 billion VW plant in Chattanooga was the UAW’s best chance at gaining a foothold in the South, it’s fair to say the Detroit-based union is facing an uphill battle recruiting and organizing workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL, the Nissan plant in Canton, MS, and elsewhere below the Mason-Dixon line.

Even though UAW President Bob King is holding indignant press conferences (that’s his job) and saying it is only a temporary setback, this Battle of Chattanooga is yet another UAW failure to capture the fort.

Why did the majority of VW workers reject the union?

The answer is simple on many levels. Most VW employees in Chattanooga feel they are better off without the UAW.

International automakers who own local plants treat their U.S. workers well. Conditions are already good and most workers consider their employers to be fair. In some cases, a non-union VW worker on the high end of the scale earns more money than a new hire who belongs to the UAW and works for General Motors, Ford or Chrysler.

Japanese automakers and other non-domestic manufacturers have a reputation for inspiring employee loyalty. Based on that alone, it will be hard to unionize transplant factories.

Injustice on the job, which was the UAW’s ax to swing against up North, doesn’t resonate with auto workers down South.

Resentment is another factor contributing to the UAW’s defeat in Chattanooga. The UAW isn’t as loved here.

So the second Battle of Chattanooga goes into the history books. The UAW vows to rise up and fight again. But it should reevaluate venturing into hostile territory.

Please keep those emails, calls, and comments coming. You are appreciated.

Jim Ziegler president of Ziegler Supersystems based in metro Atlanta, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues. He can be reached at WardsAuto readers also may comment on this article by logging in or registering below.


Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Feb 22, 2014

Great piece Jim. Dang, I didn't know you were such a history buff. But then, when you get as old as we are, we don't have to read about it. We were there. :)

IMHO - Some salient points:

1. The UAW has shot itself, and its members, in the foot on more than one occasion. The two tier pay system, which screws new employees while greasing those with the most seniority, is an abomination. If I understand it correctly, Chattanooga employees potentially stood to take a cut in pay from their non union rate to the UAW low seniority rate. If someone can confirm this one way or the other, I would appreciate it. The old “jobs bank” was another abomination. Gladly, it is gone. Restrictive work rules were another.

2. VW was happy to have a union at the plant, but I’m not sure they wanted a UAW style union. The German union recently voted for all of their workers to take a cut in pay by being scheduled for fewer hours, so more of their brethren could stay employed. That’s not the UAW’s style.

3. Any union pushing for “card check” can kiss my a**.

4. What do U.S. unions do when they extort a new deal? They go public and brag about what an industry leading contract they just negotiated. This is bragging to the world that they successfully placed their employer into a less competitive position vis a vis their competitors.

Having said this: On balance, unions have been good for the country

1. White collar workers owe their own pay scales to unions, which they received without having to go out on strike and carry signs around in nasty weather.

2. There is a bias in this country among the college educated white collar workers that think those who didn’t go to college deserve to make less money, and their mission is to make sure it stays that way.

3. Unions have increased worker safety and have done a lot of good despite their bullying tactics and associations with unsavory groups and characters. Of course, the same thing could be said about the corporations.

4. Bob Corker and other TN politicians were stupid and wrong to do and say what they did. First, they handed the UAW an "out." Secondly, they arguably broke the law, especially if anyone can find any evidence that there might have been collusion between VW execs and these guys.

Bottom Line: Had the UAW been voted in the Chattanooga plant IS likely the LAST new auto plant TN might see in the foreseeable future. Yes, Corker was right, but he was wrong to say it publicly. It is quite likely we might see another vote mandated by a court.

This has been my best effort at "fair and balanced."

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What's Retail Front?

Blogs about automotive retailing, commenting on news impacting the business of selling vehicles.


Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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