Chattanooga is the UAW’s Waterloo


VW logo

By: John Gordon

The United Auto Workers Union suffered a devastating defeat on Friday, when its attempt to organize the workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga failed on a vote of 712-626 (53-47 percent). The company had agreed not to resist the organizing effort and gave the union access to the plant and its workers. If the union couldn’t win an election under those conditions, it is a powerful sign of how weak, indeed toxic, unions have become in recent years. If the UAW couldn’t win this election, it seems doubtful it can win any election.

To be sure, unions have always been weak in the South where all the states in the old Confederacy have right-to-work laws in place. That, of course, is precisely the reason why most plants built by foreign automobile manufacturers in this country in recent years have been built there. (Low taxes and mild winters are two other powerful reasons, of course.)

But they have become increasingly weak everywhere. In the early 1950s union membership in the private sector peaked at about 35 percent of the work force. Today it is about 6 percent. Manufacturing, the heart and soul of the union movement, has become much more efficient, and therefore less labor-intensive. And much of the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, such as in garment manufacturing, have moved offshore. The UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million in the 1970s. Today it is 338,000.

Only in the public sector, which should never have been made subject to collective bargaining under the Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts, is union membership increasing. And right-to-work laws are spreading. In 2012 both Indiana and even Michigan—the home of the UAW—became right-to-work states.

But as the American economy has undergone profound change in the last sixty years, labor law has not kept pace. The Wagner Act dates to 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act to 1947. Like the unions themselves they are dinosaurs. So why do the unions continue to have such a large place in American politics while they have an ever-shrinking place in the American economy? The answer, of course, is the “mother’s milk of politics,” money. Unions are the single biggest source of funds for Democratic causes and candidates.

According to, of the top ten political donors in the last 25 years, six are unions. And they all overwhelmingly donated to Democratic causes and candidates. The UAW, for instance, has donated $41.7 million over the last 25 years. That’s well over twice what the infamous Koch brothers have donated, mostly to Republican causes. (The Koch brothers actually gave 8 percent of their money to Democratic causes and candidates.)

Of the UAW’s donations, 71 percent went to Democrats and zero percent went to Republicans. The other 29 percent went to organizations not formally affiliated with either party but it’s a safe bet they are left-leaning. Unions can also mobilize large numbers of “volunteers” for phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Thus, unions have such a disproportionate influence over the Democratic Party for the simplest of reasons: they buy it. How much longer that will continue is a good question. There is no reason to think that the long-term decline in the private sector will not continue. And in places where union dues are no longer collected by governments (such as in Wisconsin), public sector union members have been leaving in droves. Obviously, they don’t think they have been getting value for their money. That is also a trend that is likely to spread.

The days of the union movement, it seems, are numbered. But it’s not likely to go quietly.


  1. Interesting read but far from the truth. Perhaps the author should first research before writing, sort like ready, aim, fire NOT ready fire. It seems the this morning Tenn. Senator Corker is bragging about saying VW would pullout if a union were voted in. That state elected officials told VW they would lose their tax benefits and other benefits if they allowed a union vote. You are right that unions sometimes vote more for Democrats than Republicans and in some cases contribute more money to Democrats than Republicans. However since Republicans represent corporations and other business interest that is understandable.
    Now let’s talk a little about these terrible unions that you so eagerly want slander. Who will represent the worker? The corporation they work for? I think the corporation has only one purpose and that is the make money for their stockholders. The easiest way to make money is by controlling payroll. I maintain that the reason corporations are lagging in the U.S. in regards to innovation is because corporations have lost the edge to innovate to increase profits because their profits are being made on the backs of their employees. And if those employees become too expensive then the corp. simply relocates production to another country. Unions built the middle class in this country and the middle class created corp. profits. Without unions the government lacks incentive to pass laws protecting workers from corp. greed. This is witnessed by the fact that CEO salary is now 475% higher than average worker salary. The highest in the world. Do you honestly think that CEO is spending all this money each year and thereby supporting the economy? Nope they are simply stock piling the money for themselves and their children.
    I notice in this area there seems to be a negative opinion of labor unions. Perhaps that’s why we have an average wage of $10/hour and average apartment rent of $650/month. You do the math. When I interviewed an employee of WorkOne and ask about the average wage. She replied it was $10 per hour. I ask how someone was supposed to live on that? Her reply was, “A couple each working for $10 per hour would increase their earnings to $20 per hour and that was a pretty good wage”.
    Perhaps this explains why we support a party line do nothing Republican 8th District congressman (I call him groundhog Larry since he only pops up at election time), and the Republican Gov. Daniels (who called teachers the privileged few) and Pence (who spends time worrying about gay marriage and is trying to create another board of education because he can’t control Linda). Oh, and to Gov. Pence I would like to point out that Linda got more votes than you did in the last election.

    • The VW workers already make $20 per hour plus benefits. So does Toyota. They are doing quite well without the UAW. Much better than the UAW castoffs in Detroit. If you are for the unions, may I suggest that you help them change their business model to one that helps workers instead of one that feeds the coffers of Democrat politicians. They have corrupted themselves with self centered arrogance. Change or die. The choice is theirs.

      • Yes it is far better for the workers to live under the care of the corporation. We know the corporation is pure in heart and only wants their workers to share in the profits of the corporation. Which is why CEO salaries have remained constant while workers salaries are increasing at a rapid pace.

        • Under the care of the company or under the boot of a union boss. Sounds like a rock and a hard place to me as both situations are less than ideal. How about developing a valuable skill that puts one under the care of oneself and independent of union bosses and corporate overlords? Boards of Directors set the CEO’s salary. Perhaps they are better negotiators than the union bosses.

    • I tried to wear a bib when writing to keep the drool from getting into the keyboard.
      Dr. Chaos learning a trade does not exempt you from corporate power. Boards of Directors seem to hire those who will increase the earnings for them and the shareholders thusly CEO are rewarded. Since they usually all belong to the same country club it is not so hard to understand their compensation. I happen to have shared some of that power when I was working. It is an old boy network that is quite effective in keeping the riff raft at bay. Better to keep the workers at each other’s throats than have them at their bosses throats.

Comments are closed.