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Outsiders, false promises take blame in UAW's Volkswagen defeat

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Worries about job losses and uncertainty about the benefits of union membership contributed to Volkswagen workers in Tennessee rejecting the United Automobile Workers’ bid to unionize a 1,500-worker facility, union advocates and other officials said in the wake of Friday night’s results.

“The UAW tried to promise significant wages, and I think that was shown as a simple, unfillable campaign promise,” Maury Nicely, an attorney involved with the anti-union effort, told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday. “I like to think information got out to the employees, and they saw what was going was just all false promises.”

In the lead-up to this week’s 712-626 vote against unionization, workers who wanted to join the union said they were excited by the prospect of increased job security and a louder voice across the Atlantic at Volkswagen headquarters in Germany.

UAW officials blamed the stinging defeat on outside interference by Republican lawmakers who threatened to pull state subsidies for Volkswagen and essentially warned that Volkswagen would send production of a new vehicle to Mexico instead of Tennessee if the plant became unionized. Volkswagen denied the claim.

“Unfortunately, politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility,” Gary Casteel, who directs UAW’s Southern organizing, said in a statement.

UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams issued a statement saying union officials were “outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering with the basic legal right of workers to form a union.”

Nicely, of the anti-union effort, doubted that the statements made by the likes of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and state Sen. Bo Watson made a difference.

“I certainly understand that the UAW is extremely disappointed by the result, and they are searching for something to grab onto to show an outside force hurt them,” Nicely said. “By the time some of that became an issue, two-thirds of workers had already voted.”

He said the UAW's complaint about outsiders chiming in rang hollow because on Friday President Obama made a pro-union comment to reporters.

Many experts on labor unions were stunned by the result because Volkswagen did not publicly oppose the UAW’s effort. The Chattanooga plant remains the company’s only major facility without a labor organization. And a Volkswagen official said after the vote that the company remained committed to finding a way to bring a so-called works council to the facility.

Under such a system, labor union officials negotiate compensation and big-ticket items while leaving it to a group of local workers -- the works council -- to formally discuss day-to-day issues with managers.

John James, a longtime management consultant for German companies and now a professor at Pace University in New York, said a German-style works council would have brought a sense of cooperation and transparency to the Chattanooga plant.

“The workers would regularly hear, ‘We want to know what you think. We want to know how you feel. We want you to feel part of the process,’” James said in an interview Saturday.

He said that at German companies an office as small as 11 employees elects a three-person works council.

“The manager at that sales office can’t even change from Pepsi to Coke in the soda machine without approval of the three people on the works council,” James said.

Myra Montgomery, 44, a final line inspector at the Chattanooga plant, griped about the result in an interview with The Times on Saturday. She said she was in the room as ballots were being counted late Friday night.

“We really thought we had it,” she said, expressing frustration about colleagues who were apparently convinced by the threats about job losses made by "bigwigs."

“It wasn’t about the money, but it’s about what it stood for -- the opportunity to sit down and have a voice about the issues going on in the plant,” she said. For example, she complained of workers being called in to work during a snowstorm this week while other Chattanooga factories shut down.

But as the UAW turns to unionization efforts at Mercedes-Benz and Nissan plants elsewhere in the South, Montgomery said the fight wasn’t over in Chattanooga. The UAW could still challenge the voting results with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the outside influence merits a do-over.

“No matter how ridiculous and dumb things look, the pro-union supporters are not done,” she said.

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