More Boycotts? Why Not?

boycott-grapesNew Orleans     Nick Jones was an organizer and boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers from 1966 to 1976, and then spent another 30-odd years as a union organizer, largely with Service Employees locals around the Bay Area, finishing his career with the National Union of Healthcare Workers. His time with the UFW ended in the divisive meltdown of the farmworkers led by the purges orchestrated by Cesar Chavez as he tightened his control on the union, in one of the more regrettable organizing tragedies of the last 50 years in the work. Nick was interviewed in Social Policy in the recent issue, and I talked to him in more detail on Wade’s World as well. What interested me most though is Nick’s argument that boycotts are an underutilized tactical tool for progressive organizations now.

First the backstory. The farmworkers’ boycott was massive. A staffing model that welcomed – and trained – volunteers was key, paying them $5 per week in 1966 which would be about $40 per week in 2016, along with room-and-board, was critical. The struggle combined a lot of elements in the equation: a popular underdog cause, a charismatic leader, a set of simple “asks,” and using consumer and public facing companies, brands, and products as targets. It was interesting to hear Nick, and read elsewhere, about cities like Boston that produced more in donations on the street for the boycott than they were spending, making the boycott essentially a self-sufficient operation. The ability and willingness for unions, churches, and others to donate living spaces and food were also key. The ask was donate por la causa – for the cause and don’t buy grapes, or a particular wine or lettuce.

There were also some critical exceptionalities that are hard to reproduce. Chavez was, unarguably, a special organizer and leader, carrying contradictions as complex as the human condition. Having a window when particular damage would be telling because of the seasonality of the crops was also an advantage that you wouldn’t find in many targets. Finally, the exclusion of agricultural workers from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act meant that there were no bars on secondary boycotts by the union, meaning stopping the grocers handling the grapes as well as the grape farmers was possible.

Nonetheless, Nick has a point. He raised Walmart as an example. That’s a hard one. Many have been boycotting Walmart for years even without a union calling for such action, and it’s unclear that there has been much impact. McDonalds might be interesting and more vulnerable, but the current strategy of advocacy for the workers, rather than organizing the workers, makes it a harder match to conditions 50 years ago in the fields.

Still, smaller targets in more defined markets would seem especially vulnerable. The vast number of contingent workers in the informal or so-called gig economy are largely outside of the NLRA jurisdiction, and would seem to have the ability to both strike collectively and encourage boycotts with impunity. Social media and the internet are clear advantages in cost and access now, that didn’t exist then. Nick pointed out that the nascent strength indicated by Black Lives Matter and Occupy of several years ago indicate that there is a likely base for the right issue at the right time for a revitalization of the boycott tactic.

My bet is that he is exactly right, and it’s worth putting together the insights that would make such a tactic work while there are so many veterans still alive and well who could share the lessons of past successes and challenges.

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UAW Embracing Opportunity a “Patient” Strategy in the South

Employees of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. sign up to be the first members of a new, local UAW union at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa. (Stephen Dethrage |

Employees of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. sign up to be the first members of a new, local UAW union at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa. (Stephen Dethrage |

Paris    I spent hours in London in very interesting discussions about how community organizing and worker organizing could more effectively blend together to produce growth and power in both areas. This is exciting stuff. Large unions in the United Kingdom are gradually embracing the potential of community organizing though not quite sure what to make of it, or how to fully utilize its tools and strength. Despite this huge innovative push in the community they face a constant temptation – and pressure — to fall into the established patterns and protocols of the institutional labor experience, even as they try to sort out how to build something new and different. In the workplace they are still looking at how to meld the programs together. This is hard and important work, and it was exciting to be part of the conversation.

When we talked about other bold, new organizing, invariably the $15 per hour, Fast Food Forward push, is a topic of conversation and the buzz is loud and lingering. Activists in unions in the UK would like to see similar initiatives, whether they fully understand the situation in the states or not. Talking about the problem of “zero” contracts can produce instant depression.

When asked where else I thought they should look, I suggested they follow more closely what the UAW was doing in Chattanooga in moving forward with “members-only” representation for their newly chartered local at the Volkswagen plant there, where they have now crossed the majority in membership and are pressing for negotiations on work conditions in the plant. Later I caught up with the news that the UAW has chartered another local union with the same “majority unionism” strategy, but this time in Alabama at the giant Daimler Mercedes-Benz plant there, which I’ve driven by many times between New Orleans and Atlanta, and has been a UAW organizing target for more than 15 years. They announced that they were moving to sign up a majority of the workforce and in fact would ask for recognition at the time they reached that level.

A labor member of the Daimler board was at the announcement and was encouraging, adding that the Alabama plant was the only company facility in the world without some form of worker representation. The Mercedes situation seems like a sure deal with the additional news that must have crushed the souls of some of the old school Alabamans if they also saw that the UAW Secretary-Treasurer was also elected vice-president of “Daimler’s global works council, a committee consisting of both labor and company leaders. His presence marks the first time an American union leader has ever served on the council.”

These are giant breakthroughs not just in organizing transplants or in the South, but in embracing the ability to organize patiently to victory without being bogged down in one set of tactics or concerns about “exclusivity” or the final agreement. Importantly,

Kristin Dziczek, a labor expert with the Center for Automotive Research, said the local chapter in Tuscaloosa will help give the UAW more visibility on the ground with its members engaging in local activities and building support from within the community. “It’s a patient strategy,” she said. “This kind of knits them into the community.”

This is what can be built by a community-labor organizing model that looks at the future of the labor movement, rather than remembering how the work was done in the past. Everyone, not just my friends in London, should watch all of this carefully.


UAW Continues to Forge Ahead in Chattanooga with Volkswagen

615_300_UAWNew Orleans             The UAW, confounding the old schoolers and the pundits, continues to plow new, but familiar, ground in seeking to bargain a “members’ only” agreement at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant employing 1500 workers and expanding rapidly. Gary Casteel, the UAW’s Secretary-Treasurer announced that the newly chartered UAW Local 42 at the plant had reached 750 members, a 50% benchmark, and has asked management to bargain an agreement for those workers. The company has not responded currently to this latest development, but after a quick two-month recruitment campaign and its earlier public remarks, there is little doubt that it will negotiate something with the UAW, which would be a breakthrough.

It would not be a breakthrough in terms of being innovative, unique, or even novel except in the “we are the world” perverse perspective of USA labor relations. Such members only, even multiple union, relationships with companies is common around the world in many countries like India, the United Kingdom, Nicaragua, and countless other countries where unions and labor laws provide thresholds and regulations for winning representation rights as distinguished from exclusive bargaining rights, which is currently the norm under modern interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act. In the early days of the Act “member’s only” representation and multiple union bargaining was the norm. It still is in many public sector agreements in the United States and has been for decades. Exclusivity’s main advantage is that it pushes away the competition from other organizations and makes life somewhat more straightforward, though not necessarily better, for employers since there is only one union they have to deal with. Workers may or may not be in better shape, and we could debate that for days.

What we cannot debate is that the current UAW strategy of taking the half of loaf they can win now for their members is much, much better than walking away without a slice, which most old school unions would do. They stand closer to the prize, which is winning rights to represent the whole workforce in coming years, and cracking the anti-union foreign automaker transplants in the south. Patience and persistence will win them more and more.

The CWA victory after decades to represent 15000 reservation agents at American Airlines in an alliance with the Teamsters in a slam dunk election victory where they polled more than 80% recently is an excellent example of the victories that can be won by continued, committed organizing. On the other hand reading about SEIU’s strategy to organize fast food workers where the big companies are going to suddenly sit down and meet with the union and bargain, sounds like magical realism. The SEIU has won with patience and persistence before, but seem to still be trying to sort out whether or not they are willing to pay the dues and do the time. Walmart is a case study in not succumbing to magic, but also cries out for a deep, long term strategy.

The UAW might be forging the new path for the future, as it did in the past, and doing so in more ways than one.


In honor of Bruce Springsteen’s Birthday, please enjoy Blitzen Trapper’s Working on the Highway from the  Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A., a t


UAW Back in Force at VW in Chattanooga – Told You So!

092112_WEB_a_VW_Sign_t618Kiln     Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times is pretty much the dean of what is left of the labor press in the United States.  He expresses surprise at the news that the UAW is establishing a local union in the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant where they narrowly lost an election earlier in the year.  It’s pretty clear Steve is not on the ball here and neither listened to nor read the Chief Organizer’s report on April 22nd entitled, “UAW Objections Withdrawal a Sign that They Want a Second Shot Soon.”

Here’s Steve:

In an unorthodox move, the United Automobile Workers announced …that it was forming a union local in Chattanooga, Tenn., to represent workers at the Volkswagen plant there even though a majority of the plant’s workers voted in February against joining the union.  U.A.W. officials said the new local — which will have voluntary membership and not be recognized by the automaker — would serve as a collective voice for its members and would also facilitate Volkswagen’s efforts to form a German-style works council made up of workers and management.

Here’s the Chief Organizer looking at the UAW’s options and explaining why I believed that the union’s withdrawal of their objections in April after losing the election in February meant that they were hunkering down for the long haul to go big and win this thing.

The other choice, which is bolder organizing, is to immediately get the clock ticking for a second election, and this is clearly what the UAW is doing, signally in truth that they are committed to the campaign and in fact that they like their chances inside the plant and, perhaps as importantly, with Volkswagen.  You can bet that UAW organizers have done extensive work in the last three months to reassess their “yes” votes and gauge the hardness of the “no” votes and whether they can turn them if they can offset the onset of fear and panic before the last vote count.  You can also bet that UAW leaders have had extensive discussions with Volkswagen union leaders in Germany, who have board seats in the company, about how a second election would work and how the company would react.  The signs have obviously been encouraging on both counts.

The issue is not starting a local with or without collecting dues now but the fact that the union is saying they want to “…serve as a collective voice for its members and would also facilitate Volkswagen’s efforts to form a German-style works council made up of workers and management.”  Like I said, there’s little question that Bob King, the president of the UAW then, and Dennis Williams, the president now, have had some serious discussions with the company and know they have a place at the table, no questions asked.

The local business community needs to start learning to adapt to modern life and the 21st Century and come to grips with the fact that expansion on the line with another 1000 workers and continuing economic injections from Germany just aren’t going to happen without labor peace in Chattanooga.  They’re all still in it to win it, and as I said before and I’ll keep saying again, this is exciting for the labor movement in the South and everywhere else.


Please enjoy Beck’s Heart is a Drum, thanks to 


UAW Objections Withdrawal A Sign They Want a Second Shot Soon

UawHouston    Politicians and the in-plant anti-union committee at Volkswagen in Chattanooga were both chortling and celebrating the announcement that the UAW had withdrawn its election objections before the NLRB hearing on the issues raised in its recent, narrow defeat.  They are laughing too soon.  They are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession, rather than the more accurate understanding that this is a huge signal from the UAW that they are in fact deepening their commitment to keeping the campaign alive for a second shot at an election.

            There are never any future guarantees in organizing about when the time might be right to go another round, but the UAW at the crossroads faced two choices.  One was to fully engage on the legal struggle around their objections and run the clock out for years in back-and-forth appeals.  This is usually the “long game” after an election defeat where basically the union tries to save face institutionally and to maintain other organizing efforts by giving organizers and leaders’ talking points framed on the notion that there’s still a heartbeat, that justice will be done, and hope is a plan.  It’s a sad organizing strategy since even miraculously winning a second election after years would have tended to alienate the workforce, making a better result difficult. 

The other choice, which is bolder organizing, is to immediately get the clock ticking for a second election, and this is clearly what the UAW is doing, signally in truth that they are committed to the campaign and in fact that they like their chances inside the plant and, perhaps as importantly, with Volkswagen.  You can bet that UAW organizers have done extensive work in the last three months to reassess their “yes” votes and gauge the hardness of the “no” votes and whether they can turn them if they can offset the onset of fear and panic before the last vote count.  You can also bet that UAW leaders have had extensive discussions with Volkswagen union leaders in Germany, who have board seats in the company, about how a second election would work and how the company would react.  The signs have obviously been encouraging on both counts.

            The clock works this way.   The election was February 14th.  A second election could be held at the earliest in only nine more months, and the UAW could file as early as mid-January, only eight months away.  With a unit of a couple of thousand, that’s like tomorrow!

            The other reason it is easy to read the UAW’s intentions can be found in their statements upon the withdrawal.  Shrewdly, they withdrew by laying down the gauntlet to the Tennessee governor and local business establishment to hurry up and restore the $300 million in incentives for VW to locate a new SUV line in Chattanooga which would add another 1000 workers to the mix.  This is a win-win for the UAW.  It gets them back into the framework of being a job creator rather than a job threat, which had sunk their first vote.  If the Governor and the union baiters can’t convince VW to add the line, they are losers, bullies, and blowhards, and the UAW doesn’t have that problem on its shoes.  Moving the campaign right now to restore the commitments to add the line also turns the bargaining power from the politicians back to the company and its allies.  The UAW is no company union, but any Tennessee politicians have to know that VW is not going to add 1000 workers in Chattanooga without a behind the scenes commitment that the pols and the local chamber will keep out of its employee relations in the plant.  This time the Governor and the locals may have to decide if they want a 1000 jobs more than they hate the union.  If the line doesn’t get added by VW, then the Governor and the union-haters are defanged in a 2nd election.  If the line does get added, there will categorically be non-interference concessions privately made to the company, the UAW will have publicly been on the right side in advocating for more jobs, and will face a second election, the workers willing, on much, much stronger ground.  And, they will face it with the same workforce on the re-run election, because even if a plant is added, it won’t be ready in nine months or even two years in all likelihood.  None of this is to say that there won’t be bombast from the peanut gallery, but it will be a distant hum in the background in a second election, not in the workers’ faces as they go to vote.

            Does this kill off the other UAW organizing efforts with transplants in Mississippi with Nissan and with Mercedes-Benz in Alabama?  Of course not.  Both of those drives have been multi-year commitments by the UAW already and will continue to be.  Neither from all reports are anywhere near ready to go forward now, so at this point the UAW will try to rebuild its momentum with its battle-tested committee in Chattanooga, who must correctly feel that they weathered the worst the opposition could throw at them and came within 100 votes, have reassessed their yeses and maybes, and are hunkered down for another run at a second election.  Best for the UAW to wait for the momentum to change with a win, and let Mississippi and Alabama continue to toughen up so they can be ready to capitalize on a VW victory.

            There are no guarantees, but all signs indicate the UAW has now made a decision that it is in it to win it for as long as it takes.  Good news for workers in the South and everywhere!


UAW Lesson: It Takes a Village to Win a Union Election

JP-LABOR-01-master675New 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.