How The UAW Lost Chattanooga.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

“Neutrality should mean ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit’ not ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit as long as you use the outhouse’” –Brett Banditelli

There is no question that the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) failure to organize at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, TN is significant. It is the first time UAW has brought a strategic campaign targeting the so-called “transplant” automakers to a National Labor Relations Board ballot since it lost to Nissan in 2001.* Secondly, it is the UAW’s first new campaign in the South since that crushing loss. Thirdly, this election was touted as a new model by both VW executives and UAW leadership, seeking to create a “works council” at the plant in Tennessee similar to ones in existence at every other VW plant. More on that last point later.

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns, and Money does a great job analysing several aspects of this story. The issues surrounding capital mobility he raises are crucial to understanding why VW and other foreign automakers have opened factories in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. He also calls a measure of bullshit on the argument that has been made by union leadership that “outside groups” were responsible for the defeat of the UAW, noting that the conservatism of white Southerners (who dominated the voter pool in the election) is hardly a new development. As such, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and Grover Norquist should not be handed a victory trophy for what amounts to the UAW shooting themselves in the leg.

Again, this was a monumental loss for the labor movement in the South. As you read the excellent coverage and analysis from this story, five failures in this campaign emerge. They should be instructive for the UAW and any other union that seeks to organize in the South going forward:

  1. A lack of community engagement. We have blogged about this repeatedly: Southern organizing is relational and community-based. Period. If you want to win elections, issue campaigns, or union elections down here, you have to build networks of activists and community members who support your cause. By all accounts, the UAW did not do this, and it hurt them bad. The best bulwark that any union has against managerial and third-party hostility is the neighbors and families of those workers who will decide yea or nay, and no amount of access to a shop floor will ever change that in the South. And tying into this point….
  2. The UAW bargained away house calls on potential members in the neutrality agreement. The following is from Mike Elk’s piece in Working In These Times and summarizes our reaction well: “One longtime labor organizer…was so shocked that the UAW didn’t do house visits that he sent me a message today to ask me if it was true.” Almost every organizer that we have discussed this with has been jaw-on-floor shocked at this revelation. The house visit is the primary tool used to build a union, and to bargain away this tool because it ‘violates German union norms’ when the VW factory being organized is in Tennessee makes our eyes bleed. Even with shop floor access, most people still won’t talk candidly about how they feel about work at work, which is why it’s vital to speak to workers away from the job. Giving this tactic away was pants-on-head stupid.
  3. Agreeing to concessions before you even file the election petition. The foundation stone of any real union is democracy. Union democracy ain’t perfect, it occasionally ain’t even democracy, but by agreeing to cost containment before you even have union recognition is at best a bad idea and at worst a sweetheart deal to the company. This kind of bargain appears corrupt and was used against the UAW in this election. At the end of the day, the basic argument for voting a union into a workplace boils down to: “You should have a say on how you get treated at work.” When the UAW consents to an agreement that eviscerates that foundational argument for collective action on the job, we should never be surprised by a negative end result.
  4. Volkswagen was able to break the neutrality agreement without the UAW raising hell. That is a problem. It was clear that low- to middle-level managers on the floor were actively involved in the No 2 UAW campaign at the plant. A quick Google search of “uaw chattanooga vw neutrality agreement violation” brings up no instances of the union challenging Volkswagen about this, and insisting that they put an end to the violative interference. At any point VW management could have pulled the choke chain on this anti-union campaign but they were not made to by the UAW. Introducing open managerial hostility into the campaign made it just that much easier for workers to vote “no” if they felt that their jobs were at stake, and it is mindboggling that the UAW would not seek to draw attention to an action that undermines the entire point of having a neutrality agreement in the first place.
  5. The modern UAW is run by a breed of ostriches indigenous to Detroit. More from Working In These Times: “When asked by In These Times if the inability to make house visits hurt the union drive, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams simply responded, ‘No.’ “ This, combined with UAW International President Bob King’s insistence that the VW effort represents a new model after it lost, indicates that the high-level leadership of the UAW is not grounded in the day-to-day realities of growing a union in the modern day. It is one thing to fuck up, it is another thing to fuck up this bad, but it is wholly unforgivable to fuck up this bad and not be able to admit you made any errors or that this strategy is worth reexamining after the vote.

One thing we couldn’t confirm at time of writing is where the UAW pulled their organizers from. If they came from the North, then there’s a sixth failure: not utilizing their locals in North Carolina and Kentucky to reduce the stigma of unions being a Yankee thing. It’s not a panacea and you still have to deal with the union’s national profile, but any union activist can tell you organizing is much easier when the worker sees themselves in the person trying to get them to join the union. If this is the case and they pulled their organizers from the North only, then this is yet another error that was both completely avoidable and a really, really poor decision.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, the UAW leadership needs to sit down and do a no-bullshit postmortem of this internally. They need to be candid and open to criticism, from both their allies in Chattanooga and from within their ranks. You cannot learn from your mistakes if you cannot identify them, and if the press conference after the loss is any indication, the UAW leadership is struggling to identify them. You cannot successfully organize over the long run without building people’s capacity for group decision-making up, and you can’t do this if you pretend that everything is fine when it very clearly isn’t. The UAW needs to do some soul-searching before it continues other organizing drives in the South, otherwise it will never succeed.

This discussion surrounding the defeat of the UAW in Tennessee should also bring us back to a key question: Is the works council model of collective action one that can ever be viable in the United States? Despite the claims of a revolutionary new model of worker representation, the works council model is actually not new at all. In fact, worker-management boards predominated the American workplace in the era prior to the passage of the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act. They were outlawed for a good reason, namely that they inevitably were captured and dominated by management rather than being viable ways for workers to get their concerns at work addressed. Any works council here does not have the same long tradition and history as it would in Germany, and they would exist in a very different legal and cultural tradition here. If you want to picture something this kind of thinking might produce stateside, look at the Labor-Management Partnership at Kaiser Permanente. Does that really look altogether that appealing to you?

If we want a glimpse of what the future of successful union organizing in the South looks like, then a great place to start is the NAACP-led Moral Movement in North Carolina. At the Moral March on February 8th, eighty thousand people from across the South came together, with unions providing significant logistics, support, and participation. Labor unions from across the length and breadth of North Carolina sent delegations, as did unions from neighboring states. Locals formed in past fights, like the UFCW local representing Smithfield Foods’ workers, showed up to march shoulder-to-shoulder with those embroiled in new ones, like those organizing in fast food restaurants. Labor leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and NC AFL-CIO President James Andrews shared the stage and spoke on issue that affects all working people. Issues like voting rights, the environment, climate change, and education shared space with unemployment insurance, a minimum wage increase, and the right to organize. And this was only its latest chapter in a story filled with principled civil disobedience against a state government out of control.

The worst thing that can come from this defeat is to question whether the South is ready for large-scale labor organizing. The answer to that is yes, but it can’t be organized in a lazy fashion. The Moral Movement, as well as the worker center movement, has modeled a path forward for engaging communities broadly and training organizers who are indigenous to those communities specifically. An organizing campaign this disappointing would fail in even the most politically friendly environs, so its failure in a region that has been traditionally hostile to worker activism comes as no surprise.

The blame for the Chattanooga Collapse of 2014 should laid at the feet of the UAW, and not the workers (or their communities) that they so haphazardly sought to represent.

(*Earlier we said the VW loss was the first major campaign by the UAW and the first election it brought to a ballot in the South. We were wrong; Sarah Jaffe was right. Thanks to Sarah for pointing that out.)