It is 611 miles from the United Auto Workers headquarters in Detroit to Volkswagen's assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. It's a long day's drive, about 10 hours almost entirely on Interstate 75, but it turned out to be too far for the UAW.
Or so one must judge from the results of the unionization election last week in Chattanooga. Volkswagen employees voted 712-626 against certifying the UAW as their bargaining agent.
That's not an overwhelming margin. But it's significant. Volkswagen, unlike most employers, didn't oppose the union. It supported it, opening its factory to union organizers but not opponents, announcing it wanted the UAW as a partner in a worker's council similar to the company's council with its IG Metall union in Germany.
Knowledgeable analysts like Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post clearly anticipated a union victory. Many expressed hopes that it would herald successful UAW organizing drives in other foreign-manufacturer plants in the South and Midwest.
But workers made another choice. It's a big setback for the UAW, whose chances of organizing other foreign-manufacturer plants -- where managements oppose unionization -- seem as minimal as ever.
And it's a repudiation of the UAW model of unionism, which goes back to the sit-down strikes of early 1937, which enabled the union to organize General Motors and Chrysler (Ford would be organized later, in 1941).
1937 was 77 years ago. To get a sense of how long ago that was, if you go back 77 years before that year, you are in the early weeks of 1860, before Abraham Lincoln delivered the Cooper Union speech that made him a leading candidate in that year's presidential election.
America's economy changed a lot in those 77 years. And it has changed a lot in the 77 years since 1937.
The appeal of the UAW to autoworkers in the 1930s is not hard to understand. The auto companies managed workers according to the theories of Frederick W. Taylor, whose time-motion studies prescribed the most efficient ways to perform simple operations on a moving assembly line.
Taylor believed workers should be treated like stupid animals, incapable of adaptation or initiative, who needed to be disciplined to perform the same simple function all day.
Workers hated that work. But they knew in the Depression years that there were many unemployed men who would be happy to take their place.
The UAW argued that, thanks to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, it could protect workers' jobs and that its shop stewards could protest assembly line speedups by stopping the whole assembly line.
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