Retooling the UAW

Even if the UAW had won in Tennessee, another conversation is needed about the kind of organization the union has become.

Since workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted against joining the UAW this February, there has been no shortage of analysis of what went wrong. On cue, anti-union forces and many within the mainstream media took it as a sign of the increasing irrelevance of unions to today’s workers.

But the defeat also triggered a round of thoughtful soul-searching among labor’s backers about why the election was lost. Many focused on the role of the Right in turning the vote using threats and intimidation. But that’s only part of the story. Even if the UAW had won in Tennessee, another conversation is needed — a conversation about the kind of organization the UAW has become. For those of us that believe that union revitalization is an urgent necessity, addressing the deficiencies in our own unions is just as important as criticizing employers and politicians who prevent workers from unionizing.

In fact, there is more than a kernel of truth to the criticisms from the Chattanooga opposition that unionization was unlikely to produce major gains for the workforce given the UAW’s cozy relationship with the company, disavowal of industrial militancy and tight control over contract negotiations. This is evident in the union’s failure to address the needs of young UAW members in two different industries: auto workers working under two-tier contracts and graduate student teaching assistants, like the members of my local at the University of California.

After Chattanooga, the UAW national leadership should be shouting from the rooftops that they will do everything possible to defeat two-tier at the Big Three in 2015. While the International leadership has just recently stated that it would like to see the end of two-tier, meek statements in media interviews will do little to assuage second-tier members in auto factories whose wages start at $15 and top out at $19 an hour, with medical coverage only available after a full year of employment and no pensions. Defeating two-tier will require at the very least a serious commitment to internal organizing and member engagement this year — neither of which the International has made real efforts towards.

At the same time, though organizing graduate students has propped up the UAW’s finances in the long-term, graduate students have by and large not made the kinds of gains at the bargaining table that we might have hoped for with unionization. We don’t have two-tier contracts, but for the most part, we work with salaries hovering around the poverty line, minimal benefits, and no pensions, despite spending many years of our working lives as teaching assistants. And despite our large numbers — somewhere between 30–40,000 — and financial contributions to the national union, we don’t have a meaningful voice in the decisions made at UAW headquarters in Detroit.

For these reasons, UAW revitalization cannot be limited to external organizing campaigns in new regions; it must also include a re-prioritization of the needs of existing locals and the more difficult to fix issue of internal democratization.

In fact, these issues are intimately connected. If the UAW opposition in Chattanooga is to be believed, winning back a higher standard for current members and finding a less top-down approach to new organizing may also be pre-conditions for winning certification elections at the Southern auto factories. After all, as any organizer worth their salt knows, the best apostles for unionization are current members. But given the problems the union is currently facing, it’s no surprise that the leadership didn’t enlist the wholesale assistance of Big Three autoworkers in the VW campaign.

Sean Crawford is a second-tier worker at GM’s Lake Orion, Mich., assembly plant. His grandmother and great aunt were both members of the “Women’s Emergency Brigade” in the Flint sit-down strike in the 1930s. Crawford has started leading a charge against two-tier, organizing his co-workers to wear red “No More Tiers: Solidarity” T-shirts on “Solidarity Wednesdays” at the plant. As he told me this week:

Ideally, we’re supposed to be going into every sector of the economy and organizing on every level to make sure that the working class is well-represented and that we’re fighting for our interests in a well-organized, coherent way. But we can’t even keep ourselves straight in our own plants, in our facilities, so it’s difficult to have that strength anymore, and it’s difficult to function as a real union. Just think about what the word union implies, or just look at the UAW symbol itself. It implies it symbolically in the image. We’re supposed to be standing hand in hand as equals, together, working towards the same cause. But if the contract is divided between two, and even . . . [three] tiers . . . So you have multiple levels of division. These are the compromises that we’ve had.

There are some pros to it. I mean, the fact that we even still have employment in this area seems, to many, quite amazing, because we have such a huge amount of unemployment and poverty in Michigan that these jobs seemed quite appealing to a lot of folks and these compromises seemed absolutely necessary.

But I think that’s what happens when you don’t have a class-conscious vision of what society should look like and how to fight back. There are classes in America, the only thing is that we don’t know that we are members of that class, of the working class. But the wealthy, they’re members of their class, and they fight for their interests, and they lobby and they have their campaign slush funds and all these things that they use to encourage the legislatures to create policies that are in their favor. And what do we have? All we have is the union. And if the union is not fighting for us in an appropriate way, in a way that actually increases solidarity and reaches out to people of all walks of life, we’ve lost our foundations.

Yet despite the need to gear up for a big fight to defeat two-tier in 2015, the UAW has been slowly draining the national strike fund, which has declined from $1 billion to $600 million in recent years. Of course, this makes sense coming from a union that has publicly eschewed confrontation. After all, why have a large strike fund if you’re not planning to strike?

But the conflict-averse strategy is not working — for current members nor, if the UAW opposition at Chattanooga is to be believed, for potential future members. Now is the time to send a strong signal that the union is ready to strike next year to reverse concessions if necessary. This requires not only a healthy strike fund, but a sizeable investment in internal organizing to build strong rank-and-file committees in order to lay the groundwork for a robust contract campaign next year.

The UAW national leadership has begun to examine the possibility of replenishing the strike fund through a dues increase. But with so little support for current locals, no external organizing successes with transplants to point to, and no talk of investment in internal organizing to build rank-and-file power for 2015, it’s unclear whether the proposal has legs.

Conversely, without investment in internal organizing and a clear and consistent line on reversing two-tier through striking if necessary, the size of the strike fund is an empty threat to employers. And because Michigan, the UAW’s home base, became a Right to Work state last year, there is now the very real possibility that many members, particularly those in the second tier, will leave the union next year when the contract is up. A dues hike won’t incentivize those members to stay in the union — it will help convince them to leave. A failure to deliver the real possibility of a victory on two-tier will only make the problem worse.

A second issue that links together grad students and autoworkers, including those organizing at the Chattanooga plant, is the ways in which the national leadership tightly controls the flow of information and policy orientation of the union from Detroit. The problem stems from the decades-long control of the union by the Reutherite “Administration Caucus.” International reps are not elected but appointed directly by the International, overseeing the work of locals around the country with little organic connection to the workforce.

The national leadership and regional directors are not elected directly by the membership. National conventions are carefully scripted to minimize, if not entirely avoid, the possibility of new policy directions being voted in on the floor. And the union has a long and painful history of putting down rank-and-file insurgencies. As Sean Crawford put it, “If you’re not democratically open to new ideas, if you don’t encourage discussion and debate and exchange, you end up with the same old stale ideas, over and over again . . . You can’t keep doing the same stuff expecting different results.”

Meaningful revitalization of the UAW will have to deal in a real way with all of these issues and more. If we continue to focus solely on immediate tactical questions from the latest organizing drive without addressing the underlying issues of internal democratization and the need to confront employers head-on, we will continue to experience disappointments at the bargaining table and in new organizing campaigns.

Instead, we need to start building linkages among younger workers across sectors of the union to find ways to exercise real influence on the direction of the national union. There is too much at stake for too many workers to allow our union to continue plodding along on its slow death march.