U.S. Politics and the Economy

United Auto Workers Loses at Volkswagen

By Barry Sheppard

In a closely-watched election, the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) attempted to break into the anti-union South to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The union lost the election in February among the plant’s 1,550 production workers, with 626 votes in favor and 712 against.

The negative vote was something of a surprise, as unlike in other recent organizing drives, Volkswagen management did not threaten workers’ jobs if they voted yes, and was officially neutral.

There has been much discussion in the labor and left press on why the union lost.

Much of this discussion has centered on outside interference by Republican politicians and extreme right groups who poured money into the anti-union campaign. This was undoubtedly a factor.

Immediately following the election results, UAW President Bob King said, “We are obviously disappointed. We’re also outraged by the outside interference in this election.”

He was referring to public statements by the Republican Governor, Republican state legislative majority leader, and U.S. Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee to the effect that if the workers voted for the union, the state would cut back on subsidies to the factory, and that Volkswagen would move production of its new SUV elsewhere.

There were other factors, such as lower-level management violating the “neutrality” agreement, and mobilizing white-collar workers to campaign for a No vote, and similar moves.

But I want to zero in on the failures of the UAW top leadership as a main reason for the defeat.

This was brought home to me when I saw a nationally televised debate between a UAW representative and a far right opponent of unions before the elections.

I was startled when the rightist brought up the fact that the UAW leaders were in bed with the company. Class struggle militants in the UAW have made this observation over the past decades, so I was taken aback by this argument.

Of course the anti-union spokesman was being cynical—he is against all unions. But this argument had weight among the workers, according to an article by Neil Young in the pro-union In These Times, who spoke with many workers before and after the vote.

Indeed, in the “neutrality” agreement with Volkswagen, the UAW agreed not to bargain for wages above what was offered by Volkswagen competitors in the U.S. The UAW and Volkswagen agreed to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that [Volkswagen] enjoys relative to its competitors….”

This agreement was made by the UAW tops—the workers had no say in it, which rankled, according to Young.

UAW President Bob King defended this class-collaborationist position after the election: “Our philosophy is, we want to work in partnership with companies to succeed. Nobody has more at stake in the long-term success of the company than the workers on the shop floor, both blue and white collar. With every company that we work with, we’re concerned about competitiveness.”

Young quotes workers who were repelled by the massive concessions the UAW has given to the Big Three—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

In a series of contract negotiations in the 1990s and 2000s, the UAW agreed to two-tier levels of wages. New hires in the Big Three get just under $16-an-hour, and go up gradually but stay well below the roughly $28-an-hour that was the previous norm. Obviously, over time the “new hires” wage becomes the prevailing wage.

Also, for new hires, retiree medical protection plans and defined benefit pension plans, which were the norm for UAW members, were gutted. Financial responsibility for the healthcare system for all retirees was shifted from the company to the union.

What Bob King pledged to protect for Volkswagen was these concessions.

A union that negotiates away previous gains to help the companies “stay competitive” is not exactly an inspiration for workers to join up.

In addition, the “neutrality” agreement the UAW signed with Volkswagen barred the union from making any “negative” comments about the company, and prevented the union from holding one-on-one meetings with workers at their homes, a common practice in union organizing drives.

In These Times’ Neil Young goes on to report:

“Also, pro-union community activists, who spoke with In These Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of hurting their relationships with the UAW, spoke of the difficulties in getting the UAW to help them engage the broader Chattanooga community.

“Many activists I spoke with during my two trips to Chattanooga said that when they saw the UAW being continually blasted on local talk radio, newspapers and billboards, they wanted to get involved to help build community support.

“However, they say that the UAW was lukewarm in partnering with them. Indeed, when I attended a forum in December organized by Chattanooga for Workers, a community group designed to build local support for the organizing drive, more than 150 community activists attended—many from different area unions—but I encountered only three UAW members….

“‘There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you,’ said one Chattanooga community organizer, who preferred to remain anonymous. ‘Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.’”

These failures are not only of the hardened bureaucracy that rules the UAW, but the leadership of the labor movement as a whole, going back decades.

When the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955, there was much fanfare about using the combined strength of the new AFL-CIO to unionize the South.

But this effort never got off the ground. The main reason was that to unionize workers in the apartheid South would have necessitated fighting against the systematic oppression of African Americans known as Jim Crow.

This was a necessity not only to organize Black workers, but to fight against the prejudices of white workers, who were instilled by the Dixiecrat ruling class with anti-unionism as well as anti-Black attitudes. Unions and the fight for Black rights were tied together as “communist plots.”

In short, the AFL-CIO would have had to lead a social fight against Jim Crow, against anti-communism, and for what unionism would mean in advancing the interests of all workers, Black and white.

But the AFL-CIO bureaucracy itself was complicit in the anti-communist witch-hunt, driving socialists of all types as well as union militants out of the labor movement, as well as working hand in glove with the CIA against left-wing unions around the world.

It was also tied into the Democratic Party, which before the civil rights upsurge, relied on its Dixiecrat wing in the South.

The AFL-CIO tops had no stomach to take on any of these obstacles to unionizing the South, and in fact did nothing.

With the new upsurge in the Black movement in the South marked by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, the year after the AFL-CIO merger, the new federation failed to get behind it. In the subsequent explosion of the Black liberation movement across the country, and the rise of the antiwar and youth radicalization in “The Sixties,” the AFL-CIO not only failed to spearhead these movements, which objectively it could have done, it lagged far behind when it wasn’t downright hostile.

In the years since, the South has been a tough nut to crack, including for the UAW. In the past two decades, many new auto plants, especially foreign owned, such as Toyota, Honda, and Volkswagen, have been built in the South, without being unionized.

The UAW today is about half the size it once was. A common misconception is that this is because of U.S. auto companies moving overseas. But the number of autoworkers in the U.S. is actually about the same as it once was.

One factor has been the restructuring of the auto industry, with parts formerly made in the big plants being outsourced not only to plants in other countries, but within the U.S. Increasingly, small parts suppliers feed the assembly plants.

A main reason for the drop in UAW membership is the failure of the union to organize both the parts plants and the Southern factories.

The sorry performance of the UAW leadership in this organizing effort underscores the need to rebuild the labor movement on a class-struggle, social unionism, and independent political basis. A key element must be union democracy, where the rank and file is mobilized in its own interests.

The only lesson Bob King has drawn is to redouble efforts to support the capitalist Democrats in elections.