Tag Archives: Chattanooga

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.


UAW Breaking Through in Transplants in Chattanooga

VW-Chattanooga-plantNew Orleans   The Volkswagen company filed with the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a quick election among its 1600 workers in Chattanooga to determine whether or not the United Automobile Workers (UAW) should represent workers at the plant.  The UAW has confidently indicated that it has majority support among the workers based on the number that signed authorization cards asking for an election.  The company has been neutral in the campaign, and in a very rare step in union organizing has allowed the union access inside the plant to campaign among the workers.  Though the election is several weeks away, I’m calling this now for the UAW, as a critical victory for the union and for workers everywhere, especially in the South.

            Obviously, the Germany-based, Volkswagen is a well-known auto company, selling cars here for decades, but with this plant and a UAW victory, this will be the first foreign auto production company, or transplant as the union calls them, successfully unionized anywhere in the country.  Tennessee, northern Alabama, and parts of Mississippi have become the “new Detroit” for foreign auto manufacturers in recent years partially thanks to generous state tax incentives and subsidies, which added up to more than a quarter billion in Tennessee for example, and highly calculated union avoidance strategies, often making them high wage employers for their areas and committed anti-union environments.  In fact the main opposition to the UAW’s organizing seems to have come from non-workers, chambers of commerce, right-to-work committees, the Koch brothers, and the usual suspects with an in-plant committee hawking their position.

            Transplant organizing drives and elections have been painful for the UAW for years, but Bob King, UAW’s president and former organizing director, and his organizing staff, seem to have played this plant perfectly by going global.  From earlier reports the union has spent significant time in Germany appealing to Volkswagen’s union representatives, who thanks to Germany’s labor world, actually have seats on the board of the company and have been clear that they don’t want the Tennessee plant to be part of the race to the bottom for any workers. 

The company want a works council, which is the dominant, labor-management participation scheme in Germany in the United States, and to have one in the United States given U.S. labor law requires an election.  Without one it’s a section 2 violation for creating a company dominated representation process or in plain language without an election, Volkswagen would be creating a company union through its works council. 

Part of this is simply spin though.  The UAW worked the organizing strategy inside-out in Germany and outside-in in Tennessee in winning a majority.  Every organizer’s experience and countless academic studies have established that if the employer not only doesn’t oppose the union, but indicates support for worker representation, that matches perfectly with the majority of workers’ desires for representation as regular polling continues to establish even in these hard times for unions.  All of this adds up to an overwhelming victory for the UAW.  I’m not sure it will be equivalent to Seattle beating Denver, but this is one where the UAW will walk away with a trophy they have been seeking for decades.