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2014-02-26 issued by the Labor Fightback Network. For more information, please call
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Much has been said and written attempting to explain the UAW's 712-626 loss at Volkswagen in Tennessee.
The UAW's International leadership put the blame squarely on public anti-union threats by right-wing politicians. Immediately following the election results, UAW President Bob King informed reporters, "We are obviously deeply disappointed. We're also outraged by the outside interference in this election. Never before in this country have we seen a U.S. senator, a governor and a leader of the legislature threaten the company with incentives and threaten workers with a loss of product. That's outrageous."
At a press conference following the vote announcement, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams echoed his union president in blaming the loss of support for the union on the Republican politicians' statements. He was referring to what happened two days before the election, when Republican State Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson and Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick suggested that VW might not receive future state subsidies if the plant unionized.
Then, soon afterwards, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) -- the former mayor of Chattanooga -- who had pledged the previous week not to comment publicly about the ongoing election, waded back into the debate to declare, "I've had conversations today and based on those I am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga."
The media for the most part focused on the role of Tennessee politicians and also out-of-state anti-union advocacy groups funded by big corporations and wealthy individuals.
There is no question that all of these played a key role in the outcome, but it would be a big mistake to characterize that role as decisive. To do so only reinforces the idea that Big Money and their bought-and-paid-for politicians can prevent successful union organizing at will.
There is an additional problem with attributing the UAW's loss solely to the role of Tennessee politicians and outsider groups: It omits consideration of what we believe were crucial factors contributing to the loss.
Among these was the question of whether the workers considered the organizing campaign their own or something from the outside delivered to them on a top-down basis.
Nothing is more important to conducting a successful organizing campaign than establishing a strong organizing committee that is made up of dedicated union activists and is representative of the workforce. That means a committee made up of workers from the various departments and shifts, with the composition reflecting the diversity of that workforce. It also means giving the committee ownership of the campaign, working hand-in-hand with union staff.
Was there such a committee at the VW plant? According to Steve Early, the UAW did recruit some workers to serve on an organizing committee. But did they have any real decision-making authority and were they part of the UAW team that negotiated the 22-page agreement with the company spelling out how the campaign would be conducted and the obligations the UAW pledged to abide by after the anticipated vote making the UAW the workers' bargaining agent?
It is instructive to note the explanation for the UAW's loss provided by Mike Jarvis, a leader of the opposition to the UAW, who pinpointed what he felt was the turning point in the campaign: "Once we got people to realize they [UAW officials and Volkswagen executives] had already negotiated a deal behind their backs -- they 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." He added: "It just spread, I told two people who told four people who told eight people, like a pyramid kind of thing." (Washington Post Workblog, Feb. 14)
The UAW-VW Partnership -
The UAW, in its quest to show the company that it could be a reliable and responsible "partner," agreed to a whole host of unacceptable demands by the company in its organizing efforts. Labor journalist Steve Early (Counterpunch, Feb. 19) describes the pledges made by the UAW to the auto giant in its "own distinctive charm offensive aimed at winning over VW management." Early writes:
- "The UAW pledged in writing not to visit employees, uninvited, at home, and to keep any written comments about the company 'positive' and 'non-adversarial.' . . .
- "To demonstrate it would be suitably pacific, the UAW disclaimed, in writing, any intention to strike or picket for a first contract in Chattanooga.
- "The UAW committed itself in writing to 'maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that Volkswagen enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States'. . . - "As an additional friendly gesture, the UAW explicitly agreed to curtail what would be the normal scope of contract bargaining by a newly recognized union. If certified, the UAW pledged to support creation of an elected 'works council' composed of both union-represented hourly workers and non-union salaried workers (some of whom campaigned vigorously against unionization). Under this 'innovative model of labor relations,' the UAW promised to 'delegate functions and responsibilities ordinarily belonging to a union' to the council so the latter could engage 'in co-determination with the employer.'"
Added one observer, "This kind of 'union organizing' -- which has nothing to do with genuine, independent trade unionism -- is not what's going to draw workers to the trade union movement or galvanize the labor force in the South into a fighting, organized movement that can push back the attacks by the most ruthless employers imaginable. Giant corporations like Boeing have moved their production facilities to the U.S. South precisely to get rid of the unions -- however bureaucratized they may have become. They are still unions with members -- like those in IAM District 751 in Washington state -- who believe that bosses are adversaries and that the only way workers can win their demands is through struggle, not partnerships."
It would seem that some of the VW workers did not view the UAW favorably because the UAW was not offering them more than they already had but was actually offering them less in order to keep the company "competitive." In These Times staffwriter Mike Elk quotes one of the workers who voted no when he addressed this point:
"What the UAW is offering, we can already do without them," says hourly worker Mike Burton, who created the website for the No 2 UAW campaign. "We were only given one choice [of a union]. When you are only given one choice, it's BS. It would be nice if we had a union that came in here and forthright said, 'Here is what we can offer.'"
"I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW," Burton continues. "There are great unions out there, and we just weren't offered any of them." (In These Times, Feb. 15)
What seems to have been desired by some of those VW workers who voted against the UAW partnering with management was rather a union that would unite the membership into a fighting force that would then be capable of making improvements in their collective standard of living, not lowering them.
In view of the comments quoted above made by workers to the In These Times writer, it would appear that the workers considered the UAW and the company the two driving forces in the campaign, with the VW workers having little or no voice.
House Calls -
In giving up one of labor organizers' most effective tools -- making uninvited and unscheduled home calls -- the UAW delivered a heavy blow to the workers' prospects of unionizing.
To be sure, the company allowed UAW organizers onto the shop floor to give presentations on the merits of having a union. Moreover, break rooms were made accessible to union organizers. But none of this compensated for the agreement to give up house calling, unless workers expressly requested such calls.
The purpose of house calls is to get to know workers and what their concerns are, evaluating where they are at in terms of having a union, keeping detailed records, clarifying the issues, and clearing up confusions and misunderstandings. More than that, it is to insulate workers against the inevitable anti-union attacks, in this case, more from enemies of the union from within and outside of Tennessee, not so much from the employer.
There is another indispensable component to a house call: a chance to meet family members and encourage them to participate in the discussion and ask questions regarding any matter that might concern them.
If 44 workers among the 1,500 hourly employees had voted "yes" instead of "no," the union would have won at Volkswagen. Having unrestricted home calls (including repeat calls) could well have made the difference.
Community Allies -
At its founding conference in 2012, the Labor Fightback Network urged the formation of labor/community coalitions across the country to fight for a program that advances the interests of the working class majority. We argued that labor cannot "go it alone" if it is to be a viable and powerful movement.
Unfortunately there was no such labor commitment to coalition building in the struggle to unionize Volkswagen in Chattanooga. In These Times staffwriter Mike Elk reported:
"[P]ro-union community activists, who spoke with In These Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of hurting their relationships with the UAW, spoke about 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. Community activists said they had a hard time finding ways to coordinate solidarity efforts with the UAW, whose campaign they saw as insular rather than community-based.
"'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.'" (Ibid.)
Compare that to the situation in North Carolina where trade unions, labor activists, civil right groups, and other progressive sectors of the population joined together to form a coalition so broad and encompassing that it was able to mount a demonstration of 80,000 to 100,000 in Raleigh on Feb. 8, 2014. That coalition -- spearheaded by the Southern Workers Assembly -- grew out of the "Moral Mondays" protest actions that shook North Carolina's capital throughout 2013 and have now extended to Georgia, South Carolina and other Southern states. Labor and community activists joined together to demand collective bargaining for public employees, the removal to all restrictions to voting rights, quality public education for all, and 11 other demands in its "HKonJ's 14-Point Agenda." [HKonJ stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street, where the North Carolina legislature sits, coalition.]
The UAW has a lot to learn from this historic experience.
At its September 2013 convention in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution committing itself to an all-out campaign to organize the South. While the defeat at Volkswagen was undeniably a severe setback, it must in no way deter or discourage future organizing efforts. This will be helped -- not impeded -- by drawing the lessons from mistakes made at Chattanooga, while at the same time drawing inspiration and learning from the massive outpouring in Raleigh.