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What does it say about a union when they can not win a vote even when management offers no opposition? Nothing good surely. And that is the discussion occurring right now among trade union and labor movement activists all over the country. The failure of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to win the election at the Volkswagen plant came after Volkswagen management signed a 22-page neutrality agreement pledging not to interfere in the union election. All the UAW had to do was convince the workers it was in their best interest to join a union rather than not – and the answer was no.

The UAW for its part blamed Republican opposition and other “outside interference” for thwarting them.

The UAW was quick to blame the loss on public anti-union threats by right-wing politicians. Immediately following the election results, UAW President Bob King informed reporters, “We are obviously deeply disappointed. We’re also outraged by the outside interference in this election. Never before in this country have we seen a U.S. senator, a governor and a leader of the Legislature threaten the company with incentives and threaten workers with a loss of product. That’s outrageous.”

While it is certainly true the interference by outside forces likely hurt the union drive, the larger truth is that this is just the latest loss in a historic decline of the trade union movement which signifies unions have a long way to go to turn it all around, if they even can.

The UAW itself is a great example. Previously one of the most powerful unions in the world it now struggles to maintain its existing and dwindling membership.

In the early 1950s union membership in the private sector peaked at about 35 percent of the work force. Today it is about 6 percent. Manufacturing, the heart and soul of the union movement, has become much more efficient, and therefore less labor-intensive. And much of the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, such as in garment manufacturing, have moved offshore. The UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million in the 1970s. Today it is 338,000.

The trend is pretty clear and if it can not be reversed trade unions don’t have much of a future.

Hopefully this loss will serve as a wake up call and the UAW (along with other private sector unions) will recognize that it is time to make some changes. The old strategies do not work in even the relatively easier environments. If the UAW can’t win votes when management has agreed to remain neutral how will they perform when management is actively opposing them?