Running on empty? Photographer: Norm Betts/Bloomberg News
Running on empty? Photographer: Norm Betts/Bloomberg News

I asked Rich Yeselson, a former union strategist and author of this excellent article on the United Automobile Workers' failed effort to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to answer a few questions, via e-mail, about the meaning of the Chattanooga vote and the future of unionism in the U.S. Here is a lightly edited transcript.

Question: Who lost in Chattanooga last week? The UAW? Volkswagen? The plant workers?

Answer: The UAW was clearly the big loser. Its long-term project to break through at a foreign automaker's Southern plant failed again -- this time with a carefully wrought strategy and the company, effectively, on its side. Victories in social struggle signify competence and power; failure their opposite. So this makes every other organizing campaign that much tougher. The Chattanooga plant is an anomaly for VW, but it will be fine. As for the workers, a union (and the works council that would have come with it) would have given them a collective voice in the workplace on every major issue. But the majority voted no-- we'll see if they later regret that vote.

Q: Did workers at the plant conclude that the union is so weak in this economy that joining it can't provide real benefits? If so, is that perception correct?

A: We don't know that for certain yet, but some anecdotal post-vote evidence seems to indicate that a lot of the "no" voters didn't think the UAW had much juice anyway, so why join them? The workers saw the two-tier wage structure -- with starting wages in Detroit now similar to nonunion starting wages in the South -- that the UAW accepted at the Big Three auto companies after the recession. They saw the UAW's obvious eagerness to project a tone of cooperation with VW, rather than hint at any productive antagonism.

Capital mobility obviously weakens labor's economic leverage in the manufacturing sector, where facilities can be moved to lower-wage countries. (That’s why the German and Japanese companies moved to the low-wage South in the first place.) The paradox, however, is that if workers reject the UAW because of its perceived weakness, then the UAW might disappear altogether. If it does, the transplant companies in the South will feel no obligation to sustain wages and benefits, which are comparable to the union rate precisely in order to keep unions out. So the vulnerability of the union could become the vulnerability of the workers who disdain the union, too.

Q: Is it right to view this as another landmark on a long, hard road to irrelevance? Or do you see anything positive for the UAW or unions in general to extract from this?

A: It's trite to say, but history really is unknowable -- we can declare something a defeat, but we can't yet know if it's a landmark. In the early 1930s, John L. Lewis was beset by enemies within the mineworkers union, and was being booed and insulted by his own membership when he tried to speak. By 1937, he was on the cover of Time magazine, the leader of a massive and growing labor movement and the second-most-powerful person in the country.

The UAW and labor, broadly, can relearn one important lesson from this defeat: Working people, through the institutions of unions, can potentially still throw a lot of economic, political and cultural weight around. And that worries economic and political elites. The almost hysterical conservative leadership of Tennessee, including U.S. Senator Bob Corker, fears the power of unions. If unions were truly "irrelevant" there wouldn't have been so much anxiety coursing through the low-wage South that the UAW might win, and that a win might lead to other wins. But the workers have to want to unionize, even if they are being intimidated. Otherwise Corker will rest easy.

Q: We have a chronically slack labor market, stagnant and declining wages for workers who aren't at the top of the income scale and the continuing effects of technology and a global labor market keeping those wages down. Do you see a path out of this to better days and better wages? How?

A: There are public policies we could implement if we didn't have such a dysfunctional system of government, and if one of our major parties wasn't the most radical political formation since the Southern Democrats before the Civil War.

We've over-corrected for inflation. Former President Ronald Reagan and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker were cheered for "slaying" high inflation by getting it down to 4 percent. Now we've cut that in half, which crimps investment that can lead to more jobs. Europe has shown the folly of imagining growth happens via austerity and inflation fetishism.

A tighter labor market equals higher wages. Obviously we could increase workers' bargaining power via support for unionization, too. And we could lift the wage floor with a combination of wage subsidies and a higher minimum wage, which would have a ripple effect upward on higher wage scales, too. These are technical fixes that policy wonks understand. We can also generate a lot more economic expansion and lower housing costs in our great cities -- where most of our growth takes place -- by loosening zoning restrictions. Lane Kenworthy has a lot of great ideas in his new book, "Social Democratic America." But they won't happen until the structure of our political system changes, or there is a decisive transformation of the Republican Party.

Q: One last (admittedly impossible) question: In 15 years, will the number of private-sector union members be smaller or larger than now? Why?

A: You're right -- it's an impossible question! I don't know the answer. Nobody remotely could have imagined the union growth in the 15 years from 1927 to 1942, when the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. more than tripled. Incremental growth in union membership pretty much never happens in the U.S. and other western nations. Union membership tends to stagnate and decline for decades; then, occasionally, it experiences enormous growth spurts. So the historical and economic logic suggests that workers, en masse, have to become sufficiently angry at their situation to demand massive change, via increased unionization. If workers don't do that, then further decline is likely.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter. Rich Yeselson, a writer in Washington, D.C., worked for 23 years as a union strategic campaigner with the AFL-CIO, SEIU, UNITE-HERE and Change to Win. Follow him on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.