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What does the VW union failure mean for the future of U.S. organized labor?

February 26, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now: A showdown for big labor raises questions about its future in the South and beyond.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two weeks ago, employees at this Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voted against joining the United Auto Workers. It was close, 712 to 626, but the outcome ended the union’s two-year-long effort to organize the plant.

Officially, Volkswagen was neutral, but it had made clear it wanted to create an employee management council at the plant, and, legally, it can’t do that without union involvement.

Frank Fischer is CEO of V.W.’s Chattanooga operation.

FRANK FISCHER, CEO, Volkswagen Chattanooga: I want to thank all of our Chattanooga production maintenance employees for their participation in this election to decide the question of union representation. They have spoken. And Volkswagen will respect the decision of the majority.

JEFFREY BROWN: For its part, the UAW hoped a win in Chattanooga would launch it toward organizing 20 foreign auto plants across the South and reverse a long decline in its membership.

In 1979, the UAW’s ranks peaked, at 1.5 million members; 35 years later, that number has plummeted to around 390,000. The UAW’s efforts in Chattanooga ran into strong opposition, including from Republican Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor. He insisted unionization wouldn’t have provided any real benefits.

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: The pay out there is already above what UAW workers make that have worked the same amount of time. I don’t see how they can improve the environment that they work in or the safety. We have probably the number one environmentally-sound building in the world. And so this was about one thing, and I think the employees realized that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The UAW has filed a formal objection with the National Labor Relations Board, charging Volkswagen workers were unfairly influenced and intimidated by outsiders. But five V.W. Chattanooga workers filed their own petition yesterday, asking the NLRB to block any revote. They accused the company and the union of colluding to force unionization.