San Diego, Chattanooga: A Bad Week for Big Labor

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 17 2014 9:24 AM

San Diego, Chattanooga: A Bad Week for Big Labor

The election that restored Republican control to the San Diego mayor's office isn't really on the minds of progressives right now. They expected to lose. The polls said they'd lose. They lost. There's just one factor in that loss which, in retrospect, feels more ominous. The Democratic candidate, David Alverez, actually lapped mayor-elect Kevin Faulconer in fundraising. Faulconer made that an issue: Alverez, he said, was the puppet of labor unions who were "trying to buy the election" with at least $3.5 million in money for the Democrat.

Again, not a huge story at the time. It just happened five days before labor lost what was supposed to be a watershed election to organize the UAW at a Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga. The vote was 712-626 "no," even though labor had been telling friendly reporters that the win was assured. UAW may have spent $5 million on the three-year campaign to unionize. So how'd it lose?

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According to Lydia de Pillis, one factor was a campaign "carried out by a dedicated core of anti-union employees who handed out flyers, voiced their opposition through a website and social media, and held a big meeting one Saturday to make their case." They worried about a clause in the agreement "maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that VWGOA enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America." And they'd been told (and seen) for years the strength of auto industries in the South as they fled the higher salary demands of Michigan.

Told by who? Republicans, like Sen. Bob Corker (the former mayor of Chattanooga), who said flat-out that VW would build cars elsewhere if the union was formed. Conservative interest groups, too, based in D.C., which ran op-eds in local Chattanooga media as the campaign build. This column from the Center for Worker Freedom, a project of Americans for Tax Reform*, was spotlighted by Josh Eidelson and has maybe the most un-subtle lede of the campaign.

One hundred and fifty years ago an invading Union army was halted at Chattanooga by the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. The Battle of Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest days of the entire Civil War, and a resounding defeat for the Northern forces. Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union— an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has its heart set on organizing Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, which employs several thousand and supports thousands more throughout the Southeast.

I'm not sure about this sort of populism, and how compelling it was compared to the existential fear of watching the plant move away. The point is that conservatives won the argument, twice in one week, once in a competely devastating defeat for a labor movement that couldn't get people to trust it.

*I originally said that the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute was involved, too, but it only mirrored the op-ed on its site.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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