Nice unions finish last

The UAW undermined its efforts to unionize Volkswagen workers by being too conciliatory

February 22, 2014 8:00AM ET
An employee works on a Passat sedan at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn
Erik Schelzig/AP

The news out of Tennessee delivered a punch in the gut to an already beleaguered labor movement on Feb. 14: workers at a Chattanooga Volkswagen auto plant voted 712 to 626 against joining the United Auto Workers, all but extinguishing hopes for establishing a union beachhead in a rabidly anti-labor South. The region has bedeviled the labor movement ever since “Operation Dixie,” the Congress of Industrial Organization’s failed attempt in the 1940s to organize the South. In Tennessee, the current union membership rate of 6.1 percent is less than half the national average.

This campaign was unusual in many ways. The employer, Volkswagen, was neutral, even supportive of the drive — a rarity in a country where corporations spend billions every year to crush nascent organizing efforts — while Republican politicians, including Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.Tennessee state legislators and right-wing groups like Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform openly and vehemently opposed the union. Corker stated that VW would build a new midsize SUV in the factory if workers refused the union (a claim VW later denied); state representatives threatened to pull Volkswagen’s tax breaks if workers unionized; and Norquist’s organization lined the streets of Chattanooga with billboards claiming that a UAW vote would turn the city into a ravaged post-industrial wasteland. Workers were spooked by these efforts, and understandably so, with the very real possibility of the company shuttering the plant and shipping auto jobs overseas looming large in workers’ minds.

The amount of outside intervention in the campaign was nearly unprecedented. And the UAW faced a number of other hurdles, like the steep demographic challenge of organizing in the heart of Dixie. But a full campaign postmortem would be incomplete without examining the failures of the UAW itself. For while there were many outside attacks on the union, the UAW’s campaign was so timid and top-down that it failed to convince workers why they should join.

Grassroots get lost

As powerful right-wing forces flush with cash mounted open opposition, the union refused support from local activists. The UAW did little to counter right-wing threats and scare tactics, and refused to expand the effort into a broader grassroots campaign in support of the union. According to labor reporter Mike Elk, who has reported on the story from Chattanooga for several months, local supporters of the union drive — including many already-unionized Tennessee workers — approached the UAW about coordinating a grassroots community response to the vicious anti-union campaign, but were rebuffed. When the group Chattanooga for Workers organized a community forum of 150 people to support the drive, Elk reported that only three UAW members were visible in the audience.

In turning away the smaller groups, the UAW was working against its own interests. It may have feared that it would no longer be fully in control of the the messaging of such a campaign if smaller community groups with less organizational discipline became involved. Straying too far off the official message could have led the union to run afoul of a neutrality agreement signed with Volkswagen before the campaign began. Unions often seek neutrality agreements to ensure that employers will not attempt to destroy organizing efforts; in this case, part of the agreement entailed the union committing not to bad-mouth the company, and the company agreeing not to bad-mouth the union. (Clearly, Corker and Norquist agreed to no such provisions.)

Also as part of the agreement, the union was given full access to break rooms at the plant to speak to workers, but agreed to refrain from visiting workers at home without prior invitation — an essential tactic to any organizing drive.

Timidity and buddying up to corporate America, in Chattanooga or anywhere else, haven’t netted much for the UAW and other unions.

The union likely held off on opposing this provision because it worried that the company would back out of the neutrality deal. Besides, it's a big victory to persuade a multinational corporation to sign an agreement not to hire professional union busters, or hold captive audience meetings badgering workers not to vote for the union, or threaten to shutter the plant if workers decide to organize — all serious concerns for manufacturing workers everywhere, but especially those in the South, where plants such as Volkswagen's exist only because those companies have fled the unionized North and could flee the South just as easily.

But house visits from union organizers to workers are essential to successful union drives. There is a process of telling stories, answering questions and overcoming fears that has to take place through genuine relationship building long before workers are ready to vote for a union. Those relationships are built through a level of intimacy and frankness in conversation that can't be replicated in a passing conversation in a break room. The UAW organizing staff surely knows this; but why they decided not to push back against VW’s insistence on no house visits is a mystery.

The UAW also committed to "maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that (Volkswagen) enjoys relative to its competitors." Aside from the question of whether this is ever a wise move for a union to make, the fact that provisions like this were negotiated between top union leadership and VW management without any kind of worker input seemed to produce some backlash. Washington Post reporter Lydia DePillis interviewed VW worker and union opposition leader Mark Jarvis about this provision. He told her that other workers were convinced that they would vote against the union "once we got people to realize (the union) had already negotiated a deal behind (workers') backs — (workers) didn't get to have a say-so in it — they went ahead and signed the paperwork that this is going to happen as soon as we win the election."

‘Value-added proposition’

Jarvis is right. When workers see the institution that aims to represent them cutting deals with corporations that the workers had no say in, joining a union feels less like a bottom-up movement and more like an imposition from above (and an imposition to which they’ll have to pay dues). Union staff imposing demands onto workers isn’t an effective strategy to win — workers have to be involved in such critical decisions from the beginning. Organizing drives that are led by rank-and-file workers are much more likely to succeed, as research from the labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner has repeatedly shown, because the people who will ultimately make the decision about whether or not to unionize are the ones leading the drive.

What's more, the idea behind that provision — that unions can, and should, aid companies' profitability — is flat-out wrong.

Of course, companies exist (and hire workers) to earn profits. But labor unions can't exist to help facilitate that process; they are not a "value-added proposition." Unions exist to curb companies' profitmaking if it comes at the expense of its workers. Unions must therefore operate with an ethos of confrontation, rather than one of collaboration; anything else renders them totally useless. If workers imagine unions as organizations that exist simply to facilitate collaboration — rather than, say, to engage in battle with employers in a fight for social justice for themselves and other workers — what good would a union do them? As in this case, workers wouldn’t see the point of joining them. When unions give up their combative role, workers lose.

Indeed, New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse interviewed Mike Burton, a VW worker and union oppositionist who summed up this sentiment perfectly: “We don’t need the UAW to give us rights we already have.”

This idea that unions should help companies maintain profitability has, in part, helped lead to the UAW and other unions’ lack of a serious fight against almost whatever concessions companies have asked for since the 1970s. These concessions include the two-tier contracts that 20 percent of American union members are now covered under (contracts particularly prevalent in the auto industry); they pay considerably lower wages and benefits to younger workers than older ones and can be credited with significantly undermining support for unions, particularly among the younger workers bearing the brunt of those contracts. And despite all this, such concessions often don’t seem to succeed at their central task of saving jobs: Researchers such as the labor scholar Kim Moody have argued that historically, these concessions have not prevented jobs from leaving for cheaper regions of the country or offshore.

The South has long proved a conundrum for American unions, and there are no simple solutions to the difficulties of organizing in the region. But timidity and buddying up to corporate America, in Chattanooga or anywhere else, haven’t netted much for the UAW and other unions — except for devastating losses at a time when the labor movement’s very existence depends on notching some victories. Perhaps it’s time to try a less conciliatory approach.

Micah Uetricht is the online editor of Jacobin magazine and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso Books). A former labor organizer, he lives in Chicago. 


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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