The UAW’s defeat in Tennessee

Bill Crane analyses the roots of the UAW’s defeat at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.


Last Friday news of the most anticipated result in labour organising in the US for several years came back as a crushing defeat. The United Auto Workers (UAW) lost a union representation ballot at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In a workplace of over 1,300 workers, 47% voted yes and 53% no with near-universal participation.*

Winning in Chattanooga was seen as particularly crucial in an era in which the UAW is in deep decline. Of around 390,000 members, down from around 1.5 million at the end of the 1970s, many of these are in the service and academic sectors. The UAW’s future depends on its ability to organise as-yet unorganised plants owned by Volkswagen and other foreign manufacturers (known in the US as “transplants”) given the decline of the native US auto industry. The defeat in Chattanooga has put this future in question.

Organising a union has always been a tremendously difficult task in the Southern US, the homeland of racism, evangelical Christianity and hard-right Republican politics. The organising campaign was confronted by a massive amount of anti-union activity: on the shop floor where mid-level employees not eligible for UAW membership engaged in traditional union-busting, in the community where right-wing DJs blasted unions’ links with Obama, Planned Parenthood and gun-control policies, and in the halls of government where Republican politicians made not-so-veiled threats that Volkswagen could lose its state subsidies should the UAW win the vote.

The UAW’s president, Bob King, was quick to blame these conditions for the union’s defeat: “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,” he told reporters. Union officials have mentioned here and there that the intervention of Republican senator Bob Corker into the election process might give them the justification needed to convince the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency which supervises union elections, to void the result and call a new election. But their defeat is so staggering that this is unlikely, despite the fact that union-busting was clearly engaged in by all these parties.

The defeat, predictably, was seized on by the US right as an example of why unions will find it impossible to win over right-wing, Christian, patriotic American workers to the left-wing cause of workers organisation. There is, of course, no doubt that reactionary politics are held by much of the white working class in Tennessee. But many things point to the fact that this defeat is about more than just the culture wars.

In the first place the UAW was supposed to win this election, despite the difficulties involved in organising the South. The union had spent two years and millions of dollars trying to organise Chattanooga. Before the election, a majority of workers at the plant had already signed union cards.

Moreover, the union election was uncontested by Volkswagen itself. Much of the UAW’s campaign for Chattanooga was spent wooing IG Metall (IGM), the union of Volkswagen workers in the company’s home in Germany. UAW officials had hoped that with the agreement of corporate headquarters it would be allowed to share power with the company in Chattanooga in a works-council arrangement, similar to the one in which IGM in Germany shares power with the company in the boardroom and on the shop floor. Volkswagen signed a 22-page document pledging not to interfere with the organising drive, which theoretically at least should have made the UAW’s job much easier, as US labor law has many holes that allow for companies resisting a union drive to engage in typical union-busting behavior.

These conditions were certainly more favorable for the campaign than those prevailing in many other workplaces in the US, certainly the vast majority of those in the South. So, why did the UAW lose?

Some of it is certainly down to the union’s ineptness in organising workers. As the labour journalist Mike Elk wrote in In These Times, UAW organisers were reluctant to get involved with community organisations, limiting their activity to the shop floor and barely working alongside other unions in Chattanooga, who certainly had an interest in the UAW winning. “There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you” he quotes one community organiser saying, “because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.”

The neutrality agreement made by Volkswagen also forbade union organisers from visiting workers’ homes unsolicited, and from openly criticising the company. Despite UAW officials’ denial that this was a major factor in the defeat, its lack of attention to the community of the workers it tried to organise is shocking even for the anemic US labour movement.

But the UAW’s ineptitude and the terms imposed on it in the agreement with Volkswagen, much like Southern political culture, only tells us a part of the story. The real key to understanding Chattanooga is the entire basis of the UAW’s strategy. The UAW cast itself as the best friend of both the management, who it would help to improve productivity, and of the workers, who it would help to gain some marginal improvements in working conditions. To see why this is how the UAW approached organising Chattanooga, we have to wind the clock back a little.

The Long Dusk of the UAW

The UAW was established during the furthest-reaching upsurge of rank-and-file labour in the US. The very model of the American car factory by Henry Ford had been designed to be impervious to unionising, but UAW militants, in the vanguard of the CIO, engaged in plant rebellions, sit-down strikes, and community mobilisations that broke down the resistance of the Big Three US car manufacturers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) during the mid-1930s. The union was large, driven from below, and at the height of its power.

But labour’s compromise with the Democratic Party, the merger of the CIO and the old-school craft unions in the AFL, and the driving out of Communists and other radicals from the unions in the 1950s took their toll on the UAW, as they did on other formerly progressive unions. For black revolutionaries working in auto plants in Detroit and elsewhere during the early 1970s, UAW stood for “U Ain’t White,” as they battled the union’s connivance with the company in enforcing racist hiring practices and discriminatory pay on the factory floor (see Marvin Surkin and Dan Georgeakas’s classic, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying)

The roots of the current policies of the UAW lie in the 1980s and 90s, the time when organised labour was routed by employers with the support of both Republican and Democratic administrations. The lesson drawn by union bureaucrats from their defeat was that instead of rallying their members, they should now seek a role as the friendly “partner” of management in order to preserve their position. To a certain extent this is the story of most of the US labour bureaucracy, but the leadership of the UAW has distinguished itself from others by its particular cravenness.

The pact made by the UAW and Volkswagen to establish a German-style works council in Chattanooga is a perfect example of the UAW’s approach. In Germany works councils have been able to incorporate unions into the structure of the business, extending concessions to the labour bureaucracy while making them directly responsible for discipling union members. That this is the UAW’s ideal, shows us how far it has gone from its radical roots.

The fruits of this approach were on display long before Chattanooga. Obama’s bailout of General Motors in 2009 was the sign for a massive wave of concessions by the UAW to car manufacturers. Not only did the UAW agree to a no-strike pledge, it also accepted the elimination of thousands of its members’ jobs, made deep cuts to benefits and retirement funds, and eliminated a large unemployment fund. Gregg Shotwell, author of the rank-and-file UAW newsletter Live Bait and Ammo, writes>

UAW contracts have eliminated everything potential union members want: from pensions, to raises, to a say in “work-scheduling.”UAW office rats endorse the abuse of temps. We also have the “buddy-buddy” system, whereby UAW members are appointed to work side-by-side with bosses to implement speed-ups while the International UAW is reimbursed for salaries and expenses by the corporations.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the UAW helped implement tiered wage systems in the Big Three plants. This meant that not only would new workers start at far less pay than they used to, but also that a worker at the same auto plant throughout their career will never enjoy the high wages that were once the benchmark for the high standard of living enjoyed by much of the American working class from the 1950s to the 1970s. Currently, new hires at the Big Three start at $16 an hour. Taking cost of living differences between the North and the South into consideration, the $14.50 an hour that new workers at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant earn is actually a bit higher.

It may be true some of the workers in Chattanooga voted no because they believed the UAW would help Obama take away their rifles. But to believe that this was the opinion of the majority of them belittles American workers. Even in a state of grave defeat they certainly maintain the contradictory consciousness Gramsci described, balanced between the awareness of their basic material interests and the readiness to fight for them, and the numerous combined fragments of ruling-class ideas that filter down to them through the institutions of capitalist society, just like workers in any other country. It seems likely to conclude many of the workers in Chattanooga weren’t stupid, and realised that the UAW couldn’t offer them much they didn’t already have, besides the likelihood of future concessions.

Elk describes the opinion of one worker who voted no, an opinion I think may be more typical than the neanderthals of the right can imagine:

“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.”

Thus we have a bizarre situation in which an anti-union campaign among workers is actually able to claim that the union was consorting with management behind their backs, and that the union may even be plotting to pay them less than they currently earn. Clearly a different method of organising than the one the UAW offers is needed.

Neoliberalism, But in Whose Soul?

Of course, it does not do for us to turn fully against a union at this stage, even one as corrupt as the UAW. Their defeat is still ours because even the most depleted forms of trade unionism in capitalist society offer workers a framework for solidarity with each other and for the basic process of thinking through and defending their class interests. That many workers in Chattanooga themselves recognise this is proved by the fact that, despite the UAW’s failures and the intimidation of the right, nearly half of them votedfor the union.

So how do revolutionaries understand and respond to the UAW defeat? Richard Seymour, formerly of the SWP and ISN, has written on his blog Lenin’s Tomb:

Union mishandling played a role in this, of which more in a moment. However, to grasp how they fucked up so badly, it is necessary to see how they were fighting on a terrain that was far more structurally loaded against them than they perhaps realised. The real question is not why unions fuck up in their bureaucratic, back-room way, but why workers were so available for the Right. This sort of outcome cries out for a neoliberalism-in-their-souls form of analysis.

“Neoliberalism in their souls,” as far as I’m aware, is a term adopted from a line used against Seymour and other former members of the SWP, which I understand to mean that we have abandoned the idea that the working class can resist its own exploitation because of structural changes under neoliberalism. It is not meant to be a form of analysis but a slur, and it is difficult to understand what Seymour means by adopting the term.

Instead, revolutionary socialists need to see the UAW’s defeat in Chattanooga as perhaps an inevitable outcome of the union’s abject failure to organise in a way that would appeal to workers. Understanding the neoliberal period is of course central to this analysis: the UAW’s methods of management-union partnership are completely incomprehensible as anything but part of the effects of the disastrous defeats suffered by the working class under neoliberalism.

But as I noted above, despite its many faults the UAW did almost win in Tennessee. Many supported it. Further, even some workers who voted against it were receptive to unionisation. That the UAW did not win in these largely favorable conditions, and with all the resources it used up, means that if we are to use the term “neoliberalism in their souls” in this case, neoliberalism is much more in the soul of the union bureaucrats than in that of the working class itself.

The main responsibility of a Marxist analysis of the Chattanooga defeat is to point out the ways in which we can reverse it. I don’t have a complete answer to this, except to point to the IS tradition’s strategy of rank-and-file unionism, put to such excellent use by the British IS in the 1960s and 70s. Learning from that experience would be the best starting point for those of us who seek to reverse the decline of working-class organisation.

Revolutionaries in the US and Britain should realise the UAW’s defeat was a result of the fact that its leadership has long since passed the point of being able to fight, even for the survival of the union. A new workers’ upsurge in auto is what’s needed. In challenging the old, sclerotic bureaucracy which is incapable of defending its members’ interests, this would mark a revival of the traditions of class-struggle unionism the UAW was founded upon in the 1930s. As Shotwell writes,

When the transplants [foreign-owned car plants] get organized, they will be organized from within by workers independent from the UAW and unreliant on the government. Likewise, the UAW will be reformed, or re-formed, by rank-and-file workers independent from and in opposition to the bureaucracy by direct action not appeals to hierarchy.

As second-tier workers become the dominant demographic in the UAW, the Flower Fund toadies will lose influence. Second tier workers don’t wear golden handcuffs. Without pension and health insurance to look forward to in retirement, they’re free to start over. The only barricade they need to crash is the pattern of learned helplessness fostered by voting to replace the hangman.

When they realize that voting won’t change the corrupt system, they will tear the gallows down.

* Under US labour law, a union first has to conduct an organising drive at a workplace that secures the support of at least 30% of workers, who sign union cards. In an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency, the workers then give an up or down vote to the union. If a majority vote for the union, it gains representation and collective bargaining rights at the workplace. Conditions of the implementation of this law varies from state to state: some states, particularly in the South (and including Tennessee), have “right to work” laws in place which allow workers not to join the union or pay dues while benefiting from collective bargaining. More progressive law in other states requires workers to join the union once they are hired, if they are not union members already. In either case, US labour law has a number of loopholes that allow outrageous abuse of organisers and workers who support the union by employers.



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