New Orleans Ok, I was dead wrong. I called the union election for the UAW at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a solid victory for the union, and I could hardly wait to see whether or not this opened up important organizing throughout the South. Surprisingly, and tragically, when the votes were counted, the UAW had lost by a 90 vote margin.
Having a clear majority of card signers in the fall of last year would never have assured an election victory. The old organizing saying that “cards can’t walk or talk” is always true, and of course, neither under current US law can the cards vote. In this case it seems clear that the real erosion of the union’s support came not from the opposition inside the auto plant but from the hysterics and catcalls of loud voices among business and political interests in the community and throughout the state. Potential tax subsidies for any Volkswagen expansion were threatened by legislators. The governor weighed in that jobs were at stake and the union had to be stopped. Local business groups, and of course the Koch Brothers, ponied up with billboards and advertisements, making this a political campaign more than a worker election, and all of it added up to enough to sway some “yesses” into the “no” column sufficient to turn the tide against the union.
This kind of opposition isn’t unheard of for a union election or an organizing drive. Unquestionably, the mid-90’s drive to organize the Gulf Coast Mariners, one of the few seagoing groups without a union, was beaten in the Louisiana coastal swamps of Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes by virulent opposition, right down to yard signs and homemade plywood billboards dotting the bayous with calls to stop the union. Certainly, the textile organizing drives throughout the South over the many decades when we still had a robust textile industry were frequently marked by organizing struggles to win the workers and either hold many of the community forces at bay or convert them for the union. The company camp kind of industries marked by mineworkers organizing witnessed the same kind of polarization. Movies from Norma Rae to Matawan make the point vividly, and no matter their weaknesses, they paint clear pictures of the class conflict leeched deeply in the community.
Chattanooga isn’t a small town in the hollows or off a dirt road, but there are reminders here of work that has to be done, if we are to win with the transplants or any employers in the South, or for that matter anywhere: it takes a village. Whether old school or modern methodology, organizing to win must go deep, not shallow, in building community support. Workers, no matter how big the plant, are not islands separated from their communities, and unless we are willing to organize the communities as thoroughly as the worksites, we just can’t win. In too many cases the community work is still transactional, not transformative. Something on the list to be checked off as an “add-on” or extra, rather than as a fundamental that can decide winning or losing.
Bob King of the UAW is right as rain that this is a setback, but that we can still win in the South. At the same time this election in Chattanooga has to be a painful reminder that we have to put as much into organizing the community powerfully as we do into organizing the workers who make their living there. One can’t be done without the other. Not only does it take a village, but it has to be our village, if we’re going to win.