The UAW Is Betting That Autoworkers Are Ready to Organize

With its recently announced drive to organize nonunion automakers, the UAW is tackling the legacy of previous failures to organize the South. The union is wagering that the momentum of its Big Three strike will allow it to win where it’s fallen short before.

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain gestures in solidarity with striking workers during a rally at UAW Local 551 on October 7, 2023, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Fresh off their contract victories against the Big Three US automakers, late last month the new leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) announced a bold campaign to organize all thirteen nonunion automakers in the United States. This includes more than 150,000 workers at Japanese, Korean, and German “transplants” like Toyota, Kia, and Volkswagen, along with domestic electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers like Tesla and Rivian. Already, the campaign seems to be getting results, with 30 percent of Volkswagen workers at a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, announcing that they had signed cards in support of their union within the first week.

This is one of the most exciting organizing drives we’ve seen in the United States in decades. If successful, it would rebuild union power and raise standards in the critical manufacturing sector while establishing a beachhead in the largely nonunion South. It also provides a test of a risky organizing strategy that hearkens back to how the modern US labor movement first built itself.

The Importance of Manufacturing

Not since the push to organize basic industry in the 1930s and ’40s have we seen a move to organize in the manufacturing sector at this scale. That’s important because, contrary to common narratives about deindustrialization and the decline of manufacturing, the sector remains a vitally important part of the US economy. Manufacturing still contributed 10.3 percent of value added to GDP in 2022, as compared to 8.4 percent for education, health care, and social assistance, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

It is true that overall employment in manufacturing has declined as a percentage of total employment, standing at 7.8 percent compared to 14.8 percent for education, health care, and social assistance as of 2022. This is part of a contemporary trend in capitalism that historian Gabriel Winant describes, whereby “profits accrue increasingly to firms that do not generate mass employment, while labor simultaneously accumulates in low-margin industries far from profits.” But this only accentuates the strategic importance of organizing in the manufacturing sector as a means of exerting greater control over corporate profits and how they are distributed.

It is also important to emphasize that the decline in manufacturing employment has been uneven. In auto, employment has stayed relatively stable over the past forty years, at roughly 1 percent of total employment. This might seem hard to square with the plant closings and mass layoffs we have seen across the auto industry in this time period. But what it reveals is that the US auto industry has not declined so much as it has been restructured, as jobs have moved from the Big Three — Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) — to the transplants.

And as employment shifted in the auto sector, wages declined while profits skyrocketed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real hourly earnings in auto fell by more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2018, even as they rose in the private sector overall by more than 17 percent. Overall job quality also suffered, as pensions disappeared and benefits and job security eroded.

That’s because the auto sector has been de-unionized. Even as employment remained stable over the past forty years, union density collapsed from almost 60 percent in 1983 to just 16 percent today. None of the transplants or EV manufacturers are unionized, leaving the unionized Big Three as a shrinking island in a nonunion ocean. Instead of setting standards in auto as it did in its postwar heyday, the UAW found itself in a race to the bottom as nonunion plants proliferated.

The previous union leadership was aware of the crisis this presented and did make efforts to organize the transplants. But until now these efforts have ended in crushing defeat after defeat after defeat. While the new UAW administration led by President Shawn Fain has shown that they can take on the Big Three, re-unionizing the US auto industry is a challenge on an entirely different level.

It remains essential, however, as any viable path to revitalizing the US labor movement must pass through reorganizing the manufacturing sector. The UAW’s current effort is the most serious attempt to do this that we have seen to date.

Organizing the South

Given the location of many of the auto plants being organized, the UAW’s campaign is also the most serious effort to organize the US South since the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO)’s Operation Dixie in the late 1940s.

The defeat of Operation Dixie and the subsequent failure to organize the South has been an Achilles’ heel for the entire US labor movement ever since. With labor’s reach largely limited to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, Southern employers were able to create a low-wage, low-job-quality beachhead within the country that has created downward pressure on labor standards nationwide.

Southern political leaders building the postagrarian “New South” in the postwar decades aggressively touted their pro-business climate in attempts to lure companies southward. This began a migration of manufacturing jobs that has only accelerated in recent decades.

Today, states like South Carolina and Texas highlight their low labor costs, weak unions, and anti-labor right-to-work laws as enticements for businesses to relocate. Consulting firms that advise companies on site selection incorporate factors like the presence of right-to-work laws into metrics that gauge a state’s “economic competitiveness.”

It is therefore unsurprising that almost all the auto transplants built in the past four decades have been in Southern right-to-work states. Despite being accustomed to dealing with unions in their home countries and elsewhere around the world where they have operations, German, Korean, and Japanese automakers could not pass up cheap, nonunion Southern labor when deciding where to locate in the United States.

But the consequences of the failure to organize the South in the 1940s have gone far beyond the workplace — they have fundamentally shaped US politics. That’s because the CIO’s effort to organize the South was not just an effort to raise labor standards. By necessity, it involved mounting a challenge to the white supremacist, Jim Crow power structure of the period. Not only did that power structure impose a reign of terror on black people in the South, but it also impoverished much of its white population while serving as a bastion for reactionary politics and social policy more broadly.

The combination of corrupt one-party rule and the racist white primary, mixed with the skewed representative structures of US federalism, meant that a bloc of racist Southern Democrats held inordinate power at the federal level. They controlled key committees in Congress where seating was allocated by seniority, since one-party rule meant that they were rarely voted out of office; the Dixiecrats used this power to block or impose constraints on progressive New Deal legislation. As historian Ira Katznelson notes, they were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics,” placing a “Southern cage” around the New Deal.

This was especially the case for labor policy. It was Southern Democrats who insisted that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRB) of 1935 exclude domestic and agricultural workers — jobs that were far more prevalent in the South, and far more likely to be done by black workers. They also tried to block the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the minimum wage and the forty-hour workweek, and limited child labor. Southern Democrats argued that the legislation was a gift to labor unions, which they correctly saw as a threat to their power.

In this context, the CIO was not just leading a labor organizing drive — it was leading a nascent civil rights movement. The defeat of Operation Dixie (in part due to internal conflicts within the CIO that led to communist organizers being expelled) not only ensured that the South would remain an anti-union stronghold for decades to come. It also arguably delayed the onset of a mass civil rights movement in the United States by a decade or more, while shifting the institutional base of the movement from civil rights–oriented unions to the black church, thereby limiting the movement’s ability to fight for broader economic demands and build working-class power.

If the UAW has any hope of success with its new organizing drive, it will have to grapple head-on with this legacy, which lives on to this day. Indeed, it has been an integral part of the UAW’s past failed efforts to organize Southern-based transplants. It is why we have seen Southern politicians intervene directly and forcefully in union campaigns, as they did with previous campaigns at Volkswagen in Chattanooga in 2014 and 2019, or at Nissan in 2017. They understand that unions pose a threat to their new version of the “Southern way of life,” where labor is cheap and business is in charge.

It’s a system that has hampered labor for decades, and for US labor to revive, that system must be dismantled. Organizing the auto transplants could be an opening volley in that longer-term battle.

Testing an Organizing Hypothesis

Beyond its strategic and historical significance, the UAW’s new organizing drive is notable because it’s going to be a test of an organizing strategy different than most of what we’ve seen in recent years.

Current standard best practices in labor organizing stress the importance of a careful, methodical approach to organizing, where union staff and pro-union workers work together over relatively long periods of time to build up an organizing committee, map out the workplace to assess union support with each worker in the shop, and build up that support gradually with one-on-one organizing conversations long before going public with the campaign.

Then once it’s public, the organizing committee builds workplace unity and puts pressure on the boss to recognize the union through an escalating series of solidarity actions known as “structure tests.” This can involve everything from encouraging supporters to wear a union pin or T-shirt, all the way up to staging a recognition strike, depending on what the situation calls for.

The UAW’s current organizing drive doesn’t throw that organizing model out the window. But it is based on a wager that the current moment calls for bending the rules somewhat, using an approach known as “momentum-based organizing.”

The central hypothesis, which will now be tested in practice, is that workers across the auto industry have been galvanized by the UAW’s stand-up strike at the Big Three and are now ready to organize. So rather than pick one target in secret and patiently build a campaign there, the union sees its job as amplifying a wave that’s already in motion. That means broadcasting the message that the union is ready to fight and inviting nonunion autoworkers across the country to join the struggle. That’s exactly the message the union sent with its campaign launch on November 29.

As with the stand-up strike itself, the organizing campaign hearkens back to the approach that built the UAW in the 1930s and ’40s. To be sure, the sit-downs that seized Fisher Body and Chevrolet Plant No. 4 and forced GM to recognize the union took considerable organization and planning. But the organizing momentum that those recognition strikes unleashed could not have been planned according to any standard organizing playbook.

Following the end of the Flint strike in February 1937, according to historian Irving Bernstein, the UAW quickly won recognition at Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker, as well as a large number of parts manufacturers, including Briggs, Murray Body, Motor Products, Timken-Detroit Axle, LA Young Spring & Wire, and Bohn Aluminum. By April 1937, the UAW had also organized Chrysler. While hard numbers are impossible to come by, the union had by then organized something close to three hundred thousand workers since its founding in 1935 — the vast majority of them in the first few months of 1937.

Organizing on that scale took a degree of unruliness and seat-of-the-pants improvisation. Bernstein characterized the early UAW’s methods as “democracy run wild.” So if UAW’s current leadership has wagered correctly and large numbers of autoworkers are indeed ready to organize, as they were in the mid-1930s, we might see a return of some of that unruliness as a certain number of campaigns “catch fire” in a few plants.

It’s hard to know ahead of time which specific plants those will be, which is why the UAW has cast as wide a net as possible. But once they have figured out where the campaign is really taking off, then we should expect to see an accelerated version of a more textbook organizing approach in those plants, with committee building, structure tests, escalating pressure tactics, and so on. The idea is not to throw the rulebook out the window, but to modify it in light of an assessment of the current moment.

This assessment of the moment is a wager on the part of the union. We will see in the coming months whether that wager pays off. But after decades of failure and inaction, it’s promising to see the UAW in a betting mood again.