Why “I breathe union”: The invisible but real long-term consequences for America symbolized by the VW vote


After workers at the Chattanooga TN VW plant barely voted down the United Auto Workers a few days, I sent a message to my own mailing list. Part of that Feb. 17 message was this: “The vote doesn’t surprise me at all”. (The remainder of the message is at the end of this post; a link to a longer discussion of this issue can be found here.)

Most of my career I was Union staff: my full-time job was representing workers (in my case, public school teachers). One would be hard-pressed to find anyone more certain of the value to society of organized Labor Unions than myself. I do “breathe union”*.

Nonetheless, in my opinion, the workers in that Chattanooga plant, as a collection of individuals, made a very bad group decision. It was their individual decision: more “no” than “yes”. They need to own it and build from it. It can, some day, be reversed. A majority of the workers chose to lose for reasons known to each one of them, personally, including those who chose not to vote at all.

They represent the inherent weakness of our reverence for individualism in our society: while we insist on marching to our own individual drummers, we are ever more separated into balkanized special interests, including our own.

It would be one thing if all individuals were created equal, but this is not so in our society, where some individuals can do much more damage than others. The greater the gap between the haves and those who have less, the greater the problem, for everyone, including the rich. As a few rocket up in wealth and perceived “power”; the rest spiral down.

Workers in particular need to relearn the value of sticking together for the greater good. It will again be a long, hard, but essential process.

(There is an interesting distinction between the words “choice” and “decide”: Decide has the same root as suicide, etc. Choice gives other options…. Someone who commits a homicide (a decision) has at least a short term feeling of satisfaction, of having done the right thing (in his or her mind). But it is a decision with consequences.)

There is a reason the Power Establishment wants to keep unions away from the bargaining table. A good union, with members who understand and appreciate the principles of working together, tends to increase wages and benefits which, in the long term, benefit everyone directly. Unions made the middle class, which in turn made the prosperity we have enjoyed in this country.

By far the biggest losers long term when organized labor is defeated is everyone of us, including the Senator Corker’s and their ilk who try to cover their collective rear-ends in the novel ways they try to use words to mask their stupidity.

The argument that lower wages and benefits in some way help our consumer economy thrive has never made sense to me. The workers in Chattanooga retained their rights to earn lower wages, essentially without rights (a hallmark of “right to work” laws). Their “no” vote makes for something of a pyrrhic “victory” by their enemies. Their loss translates into less money for the local economy, and less (rather than greater) security for everyone.

The last chapter relating to this decision is yet to be written. At some point, the people who make this country, the workers who earn the money to spend, will take stock and enough of them will decide that they need to rise up and take action, one town, one place at a time. The revolution will be a quiet one, largely out of the public eye, but it will happen.

For me, it can’t happen too soon. For the anti-union folks who try to keep workers down, this radical development, this quiet revolution, will be a blessing, not a curse….


There is a lot of chatter about the defeat of the unionizing effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, especially since the company was not against the union – in fact, tacitly favored it. The big opposition was from politics and business, it seemed, and, of course, the majority of potential members who voted no.

I’m an old union organizer guy.

The vote doesn’t surprise me at all.

We are a society of individualists, and belonging to a union is a group activity, and of course, there are dues. The most virulently anti-union guy I’ve come across in my own family network was – it turns out – a retired Union guy, and his wife as well (meat-cutter and teacher in Iowa). Why? You can name the excuses he has for hating unions now, when he benefited directly from one for his entire career as a rank-and-file member, and benefits now in retirement….

But, of course, the big losers are business. Higher Wages are synonymous with Union; higher wages are also synonymous with more money to spent in the local economy. Higher wages have a tendency to ripple up to other sectors, with the same positive effect.

So, why is business against higher wages? You can name the excuses.

And the politicians fear monger against “union bosses”, and make “union” a synonym for “Detroit” (which itself is more a reflection of management lack of foresight than anything else).

Don’t just blame the UAW for lousy organizing, or the “no” voters for being stupid.

In my retirement, in volunteer organizations dedicated to peace and justice, I see the same short term thinking as exhibited by a majority in the VW election. People like to be free agents because they don’t have to compromise, which is the nature of organizations, like unions.

So, in one particular alliance of 75 organizations I’m very familiar with, there is long standing and thus far successful resistance to change the alliance to an organization which will have far more power than the sum of its parts. I doubt it will ever cross the bar into being an organization.

Rather than share resources, and help each other, and compromise a bit on very similar ideals, for the greater good, the choice, rather, is to compete for already scarce resources, and everyone gets weaker and weaker.

It makes no sense at all, but it is how the world (at least in the present day U.S.) works, I guess.

I’d like to hear your thoughts.