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Are unions kaput?

Robotic arms weld the interior of a Volkswagen Passat sedan at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.. A three-day election on whether workers will be represented by the United Auto Workers union concludes on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

In Chattanooga last week, workers at a Volkswagen plant voted against joining a union even though the company itself was actually hoping they would unionize.

Volkswagen wanted to set up a worker council, which under U.S. law, can only happen if a union is in place.

But the employees voted no after politicians warned that a union might raise their wages to the point that Volkswagen would eventually move.

Art Wheaton, who studied the situation for Cornell University’s Worker Institute, thinks America’s workers are sometimes their own worst enemy. He’s visited Volkswagen’s home factory in Wolfsburg, where union employees earn what? Close to $67 an hour in wages and benefits in Germany.

But in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen is paying workers only $27 an hour.

So Tennessee is sort of Germany’s China, huh?

“Yeah, pretty much,” says Wheaton.

And there’s at least two reasons German workers make that much: a robust apprenticeship program.

“In high school if you don’t want to become a scientist or engineer (they) can put you right in the factory and you’ll make a good wage and have a nice profitable middle class life,” says Wheaton.

And the other reason: workers councils.

“Which is part of the laws, that half the seats at the table are workers,” explains Wheaton.

The very workers councils that will not be happening in Chattanooga, because the workers voted no.

Union organizers say they’ll bounce back from their defeat in Tennessee, but if even the workers aren’t on their own side, it might take awhile.

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