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Reflections on the Defeat of TN Workers


The election loss at the Chattanooga plant of VW was, first and foremost, a loss suffered by the workers. Secondarily it was a loss suffered by the United Auto Workers. The workers at that facility lost the chance to bargain collectively and to obtain a voice in their workplace. This was a loss that was mainly the result of the all-out right-wing offensive that took place in TN against the workers and their – the workers’ – decision to seek representation. And, as is the case for all workers who lack collective bargaining (or the even rarer personal contract), they remain in a free-fire zone where they can be removed from their job for any reason or no reason as long as the reason does not violate statute. I am sorry; i just needed to cut to the chase.

Yet, we cannot stop there with our reflections on what transpired. This was a situation where the company – VW – agreed to be neutral and, in many ways, seemed to welcome the union. Nevertheless, by a relatively slim majority, the proponents of workers’ rights did not prevail. This reality emphasizes the point that employer neutrality, while important, is insufficient. There are larger factors at stake when workers must make a decision on union representation, particularly in a period where labor unions have been under such vicious assault. The decision, in this case, of the Republican Party and others on the political Right to draw a line in the sand and go all out to intimidate the workforce is a case-in-point. The workers, their families and friends had to decide whether the threats coming from the political Right were genuine or just rhetoric. Given the history of anti-worker repression in the South, along with the on-going racist efforts to secure a `white bloc’ against progress, the messages of the political Right came through loud and clear.

At the same time there was another factor that i found particularly striking. It was mentioned in an article on the election in the Washington Post yesterday (Monday). They indicated that within the anti-union vote there were those who were angered by the UAW’s willingness to keep the wages and benefits of VW workers in TN `competitive.’ This was particularly interesting because herein lay a critique of the UAW that may have surprised many people. The workers were saying that they did not want to guarantee to VW that their wages would stay below those of Chrysler, Ford or GM workers.

The UAW finds itself in a bind. For more than thirty years it has engaged in concessionary bargaining with employers under the banner of “jointness.” Only a few years ago it approved a two-tier agreement by which the wage and benefit package for incoming workers would differ from veteran workers. Two-tier systems are by their very nature demoralizing and undermine any real sense of solidarity. They are also a poison pill that can kill the patient over time as the newer workers come to resent the benefits that they do not have, but which are held by the veteran workers. Jointness, two tier concessions and a failure – until relatively recently – to develop innovative approaches toward organizing auto “transplants” and auto parts manufacturers in the South have come back to bite the UAW, and to bite with fangs of steel.

The defeat in TN will lead some commentators to suggest that organizing in the South, or in any hostile environment, is pointless short of changes in labor law. Such conclusions, which we hear periodically, are ahistoric and defeatest. Yet there are sobering conclusions, or at least suggestions that must be considered. With all due respect, let me propose a few.

One, the UAW needs to build a local union in that TN plant. The fact that the election was lost should not mean that the union disappears. Rather, there is the notion that has become increasingly popular over the last 20 years of what are called “non-majority unions,” that is, unions that are organized in a situation where they have not won majority status and, therefore, cannot bargain collectively, but where they can organize the workers and build alternative forms of representation. The UAW needs to make that commitment and flip the script.

Two, as is being attempted by the UAW in Mississippi, organizing must look very differently than in the past. The battle is not simply, only and some cases, mainly between the workers and the employer. In the case of Chattanooga, VW was not opposed to the union, for example. Yet in organizing a labor union we must be clear that this is and always has been about power – who has it and who does not. Thus, organizing a union really must be a community affair. It must be a matter that involves and engages not only the directly affected workers but also their families, friends and neighbors. The community must see in unionization an economic development strategy that makes sense. They must also see in unionization a strategy to fight back against the gross injustices that workers feel every day.

Three, grass roots political education and political action is key. The political Right mobilized its various forces against this unionization effort. Workers and their unions cannot sit back and await a Democratic Party response to such a travesty. Workers need locally-based political associations and organizations that can mobilize in order to both advance a progressive project but to also move against the political Right. Champions of workers rights must create a bit of mischief thereby destabilizing our opponents. That ranges from an active presence in the media to legislative initiatives that advance workers’ rights to electoral campaigns against the demons who wish to keep the workers in bondage.

Four, and this is a difficult one, the UAW will need to look at itself. The UAW is not by itself in this challenge, i might add. Today’s unions were constructed in a very different environment. In many cases they are led – at the national and local levels – by very sincere individuals who continue to fight the `last war.’ In the case of the UAW, the leaders and members probably need to seize this time to reflect on the strategy of jointness; on two-tier systems; on their failure to take an aggressive approach to organizing the auto parts industry; and why it has taken so long to make a serious and on-going effort to unionize the South. Such a discussion will be complicated and painful, but in the absence of such an examination, the UAW will continue to die the death of a thousand cuts. And, more importantly, workers in this country who so desperately need unionization, will continue to feel the boot of corporate America and their right-wing allies on our collective necks.

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