The United Auto Workers’ defeat, by a 712 to 626 vote, in its effort to organize Volkswagen’s Chattanooga assembly plant, has been attributed to many causes: the South’s anti-union tradition; the outspoken opposition of some local, Republican officials, including Sen. Bob Corker, Chattanooga’s former mayor; and anti-union campaigns by conservative groups. But the deeper cause is simpler: Private-sector unions can no longer provide big benefits to members.
On paper, unions can deliver three things: higher wages and fringe benefits; greater job security; and better working conditions, including protection against arbitrary or unlawful management practices. In the 1950s and ’60s, unions could win these gains. Now, greater competition has eroded their leverage. Workers weighing the reduced advantages of being unionized must also consider the possibility that high-priced, rigid union labor might one day cost them their jobs. In Chattanooga, this calculus went against the UAW.