UAW: What Went Wrong in Chattanooga?

The bourgeois press went into overdrive about organized labor’s “devastating defeat” in the South, after workers at a Chattanooga, TN Volkswagen plant voted 712 to 626 against unionizing. One could detect a triumphant tone in the coverage, as if to say, “What more evidence could you ask for? The unions’ days are finished!”

Meanwhile, UAW president Bob King, along with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and the rest of the labor leaders are blaming the results on “excessive external influence” by Republican politicians and conservative groups.

Both big business and organized labor recognized that there was a lot at stake in this campaign, as one successful industrial unionization in the notoriously misnamed “right-to-work” South would have certainly inspired other workplaces. Meanwhile, local politicians like Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker—in reality the defenders of the interests of the Southern capitalist class—knew it was their solemn duty to keep organized labor from “getting an inch” in the region, for fear of awakening the sleeping giant and unleashing a wave of similar union drives throughout the South. With the lowest rate of unionization coupled with the lowest wages in the country, automobile manufacturers such as BMW, Toyota, Mercedes, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, and Kia have been moving production lines into this vast region. It’s no wonder they mobilized “excessive external influence”—they were only defending their most basic of class interests—the need to maximize profits.

The organizing drive was peculiar for a number of reasons. Firstly, Volks-wagen’s German owners and the plant management had practically welcomed the UAW into the factory. Their intention was to establish a German-style labor-management “works council,” a body in which managers and workers’ representatives would negotiate on different matters, encourage increases in productivity, voice complaints etc., thereby increasing efficiency—and profits—and reducing the threat of strike action for the company. By law, the workers must be represented by a union in order for such a body to be formed. Therefore, UAW organizers were allowed to walk freely through the factory and talk to workers. Initial card checks before the organizing drive indicated that a majority of the workers at the plant were in favor of the union. So what tipped the vote?

Before the organizing effort began, union president Bob King sat down with plant management and assured them that the UAW had changed, that it wanted what was best for Volkswagen, that there was no longer a threat of confrontation, and so on. Rather than expressing any hint of suspicion at the concept of a management-supported works council, and the fact that the plant owners were inviting the union into the plant, this was embraced by the union leadership and promoted to the workers as the main benefit of unionizing, or in Bob King’s words, “to set a new standard in the United States for innovative labor-management relations that benefits the company, the entire workforce, shareholders, and the community.”

In other words, from the very beginning, the union leaders sought to codify class collaboration, putting forward the idea that what was good for the company was good for the workers. The union was going to be a good friend of the company, almost as if it were some neutral body in the plant merely there to smooth things out. This is precisely the opposite of what labor needs to get back on track. What is needed is a class-struggle approach to trade unionism that fights tooth-and-nail against concessions and givebacks, and which puts forward a perspective of militant struggle to reconquer what the auto and manufacturing industries have taken from their workers over the past few decades. Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that the workers were not moved to fight for a union that did not promise to fight for them.

One of the external conservative groups that fought against the UAW campaign was Americans for Tax Reform, which financed over a dozen anti-union billboards in the area. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the UAW did not also step up its campaign beyond the factory, seeking to win broad public support for a militant union. Yet, what is most telling about the situation was the content of the billboards, which primarily discredited the UAW by publicizing its closeness to Obama and the Democratic Party. The billboards highlighted the fact that the union had contributed $1.7 million to the Democrats, and even called them the “United Obama Workers.” This no doubt aimed at playing into the conservatism of the region, yet it is also a reminder of the labor movement’s political crisis—namely its lack of any mass alternative to the parties of the capitalist class.

To UAW president Bob King and the rest of the labor leaders we say the following: labor must draw the correct conclusions from this experience! As long as the UAW stays on the course of meekly collaborating with the bosses and supporting their political representatives in the Democratic Party, working people have no reason to unite behind and strengthen the unions. If the UAW organizers had engaged the workers behind the backs of the management, putting forward a concrete program of struggle to reconquer the gains of the past throughout the auto industry, they would have won over not only the indecisive layers, but a section of the confused anti-union workers as well. As it stands, new non-union hires in Tennessee make more than new hires at UAW plants in Michigan! This is where business unionism and class collaboration has led the movement.

One thing Bob King said is undeniable: the UAW has indeed changed! It was once the union that led the struggle against General Motors, the biggest employer in the country at the time—a position held by Walmart today. By organizing the working class in this key industry during the spectacular rise of labor in the 30s and 40s, it spurred the action of wide layers of the working class, which fought with waves of militant strike action and won enormous concessions from the bosses—including in the South.

Today, the UAW leadership appears to have lost these traditions and instead bends over backwards for the auto companies and their shareholders. During the bailout of GM it made huge concessions at the expense of its members, rather than rejecting the policies and conditions of the bailout and defending workers from the effects of the bosses’ crisis. Better yet, the UAW should have been at the forefront of demanding nationalization of the industry under workers’ democratic control, to be run in the public interest.

It is high time the labor movement put its precious resources to use to build a nationwide economic and political struggle against the attacks on the working class’s standard of living. Labor must break decisively with the bosses at the workplace and in politics. We must build strong, fighting unions, and a mass party of labor, armed with a socialist program. Only then will the working class be free from the grasp of the 1%, in order to provide everyone with a quality jobs, benefits, and leisure.

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