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Even with management on their side, the United Auto Workers could not win in the South.

MONTAGNE: Last week, workers at a Volkswagen plant rejected a plan to unionize. The company had accepted the union, but conservative politicians did not.

INSKEEP: Now the AFL-CIO - a big union umbrella group - is holding its winter meetings in another southern city. From Houston they seek better ways to organize a region historically resistant to unions.

Here's NPR national political correspondent, Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There's a lot on the agenda here at the AFL-CIO gathering in Houston. From the push to increase the minimum wage to pressing for a new immigration law that includes path to citizenship, to looking ahead to the 2014 and 2016 elections. But much of the discussion in hallways and in media briefings is about the failure to organize at Volkswagen.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that loss - by a very narrow margin - should be kept in perspective.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Not many years ago, this kind of union election in Chattanooga would have been unthinkable.

GONYEA: He places the blame on an aggressive stop-the-union effort by Republican elected officials in Tennessee, who said that bringing in the UAW would mean a loss of tax incentives the state gives to VW and that it would make it harder to recruit other businesses.

TRUMKA: You had a governor, you had the head of the legislature, you had a U.S. senator saying to workers, if you exercise your right, we're going to take away your job. That was the threat.

GONYEA: The South has always been difficult terrain for the labor movement. Right to work laws are the norm here, making it harder to organize and collect dues. But D. Taylor, president of the union called Unite Here, which represents hotel, food service and textile workers, says there are workers all across the South who should be receptive to a union. He says it's very difficult work organizing them. But...

D. TAYLOR: We have to have a continued presence and an aggressive presence in the South in order to make sure those workers have better wages and they have more job security than currently exists.

GONYEA: I asked Taylor about current organizing efforts by his union in the South. He said there are many, then he adds...

TAYLOR: We are, we are doing campaigns, but based on what we just saw in Tennessee, we try keep a low profile so we don't have the entire, you know, the governor and U.S. senators condemn that we're going to make it the worse place in the world to have business. So, yeah, we're organizing in the South. And to counter the bad news from Chattanooga, union leaders also point to government data showing several southern states - including Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee - with an increase in the percentage of workers who are union members. The overall gains are small, but the AFL-CIO says it's a sign of progress and opportunity.

GONYEA: Rose Ann Demoro heads the nurses union, National Nurse United, which she points out, has made some sizeable gains.

ROSE ANN DEMORO: Seven thousand nurses in the last three years in the South. I think 4,500 in Florida, 2,500 in Texas. We have a massive organizing campaign going right now in Orlando, there's other campaigns going on right now in Texas and then other places throughout the South.

GONYEA: At the AFL-CIO meetings here the talk of organizing in places like the South merges with what the labor movement says is its top issue: income inequality - and the fact that the wages of average Americans aren't keeping up.

Again, Richard Trumka.

TRUMKA: If that's the debate then the American people will begin to win. Look, a lot of people are talking about it - from the pope to the president and everybody in between.

GONYEA: And, Trumka hopes that topic gains traction in the 2014 and 2016 campaign seasons.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Houston.

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