Tennessee Car Sick Blues

The UAW needs to examine its history and remember where power comes from — rank-and-file workers.

Volkswagen and the UAW go way back. Volkswagen’s Westmoreland, Pa. Rabbit plant was the first foreign car plant built in the US after the 1920s. The UAW, at the peak of its power in 1978, wanted to unionize the plant. It reached out to IG Metall for help and, unlike Friday’s secret ballot election at VW’s Chattanooga, Tenn. plant, it won handily. The UAW’s Westmoreland victory thirty-five years ago was the last time the union successfully organized a foreign (non-joint-venture) auto transplant.

The loss in Chattanooga is big news. Some are saying it’s game over for the UAW, that Bob King’s plan to save the UAW is a failure, that the UAW will fade into oblivion. Others are giddy at the “no” vote. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker “[i]s thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen.” The South has risen again and defeated the evil, Obama-loving, gun-hating, autoworkers union.

The UAW only lost by eighty-six votes, which isn’t much compared to its 2001 trouncing at Nissan, when Smyrna autoworkers voted two to one against the union. But the UAW was supposed to win this one. It’s been working on the campaign for two years and has spent millions of dollars to reach out to workers in Chattanooga. A few weeks ago, it looked like UAW would succeed. Volkswagen was neutral-ish, IG Metall was throwing its weight behind the campaign, Obama gave the thumbs up, and VW workers signed a majority of union cards.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Friday’s loss continues a pattern of failure for the UAW over the past three decades. Today transplants produce 30 percent of the cars sold in the US. If you add in imports, the percentage of cars sold in the US assembled by non-union workers is 55 percent. The UAW’s membership has dwindled from its peak of 1.7 million members in the late seventies to less than 400,000 today (with roughly a third of UAW members employed outside the auto industry).

The union really needed this one. It needed to show that UAW President Bob King’s strategy of top-down networking and a new responsible, pro-growth, play-nice demeanor would jump-start the UAW’s mojo and revive declining membership. Auto experts and labor scholars have long argued that organizing the transplants is a do-or-die imperative. If the union doesn’t absorb the transplants it will be unable to maintain high wages at the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler), and its dreams of pushing up supplier wages through high wages at the top will never materialize. King himself has said on numerous occasions that cracking the transplants is the lynchpin in rebuilding UAW power and that without them the union doesn’t have a future.

The blame game for Friday’s loss is in full swing. The UAW is “outraged by the outside interference” in the election and is considering filing a case with the NLRB over “coercive” comments made by Sen. Corker last week. Corker announced that he had inside information that VW would build its new SUV in Tennessee, but only if workers rejected the union.

Corker wasn’t working alone. A multi-pronged opposition campaign involving the Tea Party, the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, and various levels of government sprung up in Tennessee over the past two years. Anti-UAW groups like Southern Momentum and the Center for Worker Freedom raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the UAW out of Chattanooga. The run-up to the election got heated.

State Sen. Bo Watson threatened to take away state subsidies for Volkswagen if the UAW prevailed, and Gov. Bill Haslam worried aloud that auto supplier jobs would go elsewhere if a union came to town. The most colorful opposition was Grover Norquist’s thirteen billboards spreading fear, hate, and misspelled words all over Tennessee. One sign depicted an abandoned plant in Detroit, blaming the UAW for the decline of the city. Another told Tennesseans that the UAW (and Obama) would take away their guns.

Voices critical of the UAW say the union dug its own grave by not understanding what Volkswagen workers want. Even though the union had a majority of cards, many workers were on the fence, not sure whether the union could offer them anything they didn’t already have. Industry types chalk this up to Volkswagen being a great place to work. But even if you don’t believe that, the wage differential between Volkswagen and the Big Three isn’t very big. Since the UAW agreed to across-the-board tiered wages during the 2009 restructuring, assembly wages for union and non-union workers have become comparable. New workers at VW actually make more than new hires at Big Three plants and have the same benefits.

Micheline Maynard says the problem is deeper than this, that the UAW doesn’t understand the culture of the Deep South. She went on a whistle stop tour of the southern states two summers ago, visiting every new car plant to talk to workers. She argues that “The auto industry has been one of the biggest examples of success for the South over the past three decades.” The feeling of pride is “inextricably linked to the idea that these plants are union-free. The factories have been the South’s proof that its workers also have manufacturing skill, and they don’t need a middleman to speak for them.”

Transplant factories outside the South in places like Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio aren’t unionized either, though. Of the three, only Indiana is a right-to-work state (since 2012). The bigger problem for the UAW is the issue of capital mobility. The vast majority of jobs lost in the industry have been union jobs, while new jobs are nearly all non-union. The public blames the union for capital flight and declining manufacturing jobs, and in states with high unemployment (like Tennessee), a $30,000 a year job is a godsend. When VW opened in 2011 it received more than 83,000 applications for 2,500 open positions.

Bob King has tried to calm fears of capital flight with a new strategy over the past two years. Borrowing a page from the SEIU playbook, in 2011 he pronounced an end to combative strategies, arguing instead that the union would work with companies to “add value” to their workplaces. He promised a new UAW, a team player that would benefit both workers and companies. For the Chattanooga campaign he mobilized dozens of organizers and college interns, building networks with international unions to put pressure on the company to maintain neutrality and create a “fear-free” election environment. He was successful in getting Volkswagen to play ball (though the circumstances of the works council are certainly unique), but he wasn’t successful in convincing workers to overcome their fears of capital flight and vote union.

The union’s inability to assuage fears of plant closure is a result of its total inability to prevent or control capital flight over the past three decades. The UAW has no solution for the stomach-churning anxiety of workers wondering whether their plant will get new product, whether the car they’re building will sell, whether the corporate heads will decide on Mexico instead of Chattanooga.

It’s not for lack of trying. The union has tried militancy, cooperative agreements, electoral politics, and lots of concessions. Nothing has worked.

The industry has been restructuring and evolving nonstop for three decades. Jobs have moved into the US, jobs have moved out, jobs have disappeared. In the political and economic vortex of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization, there’s no stopping creative destruction in the auto industry. And there’s no return to the 1960s. The union can’t simply capture power at the top and hope it trickles down to benefit everyone. The industry is too complex. There is too much room for maneuver. Auto companies are moving to low-wage sites like Mexico, but they’re also moving to higher-wage sites in the US. In a volatile, cyclical industry like auto, this is not going to change any time soon.

King says the UAW won’t stop trying at Chattanooga. It took seven years to organize Ford so they’re sure as hell not going to stop now. They’ll be right back there after the NLRB-mandated one year cooling-off period because organizing the transplants is the only way to regain power.

Their dedication is noble, but the UAW’s organizing strategy is not going to work. Friday’s loss has made the UAW look more toothless than ever. It showed (again) that the union needs a fundamentally new approach to organizing autoworkers and rebuilding its organization.

Rank-and-file autoworkers have been saying this for decades. They understand that power doesn’t come from friendly campaigns and negotiating with management. It doesn’t come from neutrality agreements and promises to behave responsibly and keep the bottom line in sight at all times. As long as the UAW leadership follows this definition of power, they will keep losing until they disappear.

Power comes from rank-and-file workers getting angry and doing something about it. It comes from people organizing themselves from the inside-out and the bottom-up. It comes from unions having a place in the community. If the UAW wants to increase its power it will stop focusing on high-profile plants where victory will improve its image and prestige and instead, start organizing supplier workers who are desperate for a union. Granted, the UAW has had a few successes at Tier 1 suppliers over the past few years, but the bulk of its passion and organizing budget have gone to organizing the transplants.

More than 70 percent of production workers in the US auto industry are employed by suppliers. Thousands of autoworkers in the supplier sector are toiling in sweatshop conditions (some of them right in Detroit), working seven days a week for lousy wages and no sick pay or healthcare. The UAW needs to show that it will use what muscle it has left to help out workers who don’t add to its bottom-line, whose unionization won’t make a punchy press release or the front page of the New York Times. This will show autoworkers everywhere that the UAW is not just about its strike fund and trying to hold on to what it’s got. It will prove that the UAW is willing to go all in on risky bets, to organize workers who need help regardless of whether their plant is strategic, or likely to close down.

The UAW needs to examine its fighting roots and remember where power comes from — rank-and-file workers.