UAW Embracing Opportunity a “Patient” Strategy in the South

Citizen Wealth International Labor Organizing
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.