The UAW’s Election Loss at Chattanooga VW Plant Will Not End the Southern Auto Organizing Drive

by Paul Garver

Attributing its narrow loss at the Chattanooga VW plant to outrageous outside interference by anti-union special interest groups and right-wing politicians, on 21st February the UAW formally filed objections to the election with the NLRB. This is new legal terrain, since the electoral misconduct stemmed not as customary from management but from misleading and coercive statements by right-wing politicians and wealthy anti-union organizations.

The success of the UAW’s novel legal appeal is far from certain, despite its evident justification. It is also uncertain, even if a new election is granted, whether the union would  prevail in an unchanged hostile external political environment and continuing opposition to the union by some workers. However a new combination of political mobilization in the community and renewed organizing efforts by pro-union VW workers and their families can succeed.

I went away from a workshop with renewed hope at the recent Labor Notes conference in Chicago addressed by Volkswagon workers  and by Chris Brooks, of Chattanooga Organized for Action.  The workers and Chris explained with passion and clear analytical thinking how the union came close to victory, only to be blindsided by a massive anti-union campaign fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars from shadowy outside special interests.

Although Volkswagon as a corporate entity largely  respected the neutrality agreement it had made with the UAW (under pressure from its Works Council), the pro-union workers and the UAW were taken by surprise by this unprecedented outside interference.  Union organizers have learned by harsh experience that the all too often successful objective of last minute massive anti-union propaganda is not to persuade the workers, but to paralyze their wills by sowing confusion and dissension.  A significant number of workers who have signed union cards lose their courage to vote for change, and vote NO in the hope that the strident noise and turmoil will just go away.  Normally the source of this progaganda is company management itself and its hired consultants, and so it was not naive for the UAW to believe that it would win an honest vote if the company remained neutral.

With perfect 20-20 hindsight, it is logical to argue that the union should have mobilized its community supporters and used house visits and other methods to win deeper support from workers and their families in order to resist an anti-union onslaught.  However who could have foreseen that, even as VW itself remained neutral, other more sinister forces would openly take up the cudgel against the union, leading to its narrow defeat?

The active worker core represented on their plant Leadership Council were stunned and dismayed by their unexpected loss.  But they have learned the lessons for the future.  Whether or not the NLRB challenge overturns the union’s defeat (and there appears to be no legal precedent), in a new election the pro-union will have to directly confront the likelihood of another savage external onslaught.  This means that there will have to be much deeper support among the workers and much more community mobilization outside the  factory itself.  Just as it took over a decade of up and down struggle for the UFCW to organize the giant Smithfield pig slaughtering plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, it may take decades for the union to unionize the Chattanooga VW plant.  But if the courage and determination of the UAW activists and Chris Brooks persevere and continue to typify the struggle, and provided that the UAW continues to provide sufficient resources, they will ultimately prevail.

While an electoral victory at the VW Chattanooga plant would have greatly encouraged the prospects of union victories at the Vance, Alabama, Mercedes plant and the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, the UAW is continuing its drive to organize auto assembly and auto parts plants in the South.  The union is currently in the midst of an NLRB hearing charging that Mercedes management in Alabama is not abiding by the neutrality agreement reached between parent company Daimler-Benz and the UAW, brokered by its German Works Council. Members of the German auto workers union IGMetall from the Daimler Works Council have visited Alabama to encourage and support the workers.   The UAW has managed to win union representation rights at two Alabama auto parts plants that supply the Mercedes plant in Vance, though the union recently lost a third election.  The German union IGMetall, and the global union federation responsible for the auto sector, IndustriALL have been providing invaluable support for the UAW’s Southern organizing drive.


5 Responses

  1. As an organizer of 30 years the “red flags” pointing to the reasons for the UAW loss are obvious. Organized labor today is still operating a 1938 operation and the employers have out planned them for years.

    And the big egos in the national office think they know everything and will listen to no one. Their approach to new ideas for 50 years has been “kill the messenger”….I watched it for 30 years….

  2. Paul’s piece is well-written and overall smart. Let me take exception to one key point. Paul writes:
    “With perfect 20-20 hindsight, it is logical to argue that the union should have mobilized its community supporters and used house visits and other methods to win deeper support from workers and their families in order to resist an anti-union onslaught. However who could have foreseen that, even as VW itself remained neutral, other more sinister forces would openly take up the cudgel against the union, leading to its narrow defeat?”

    Well. no. It’s not 20-20 hindsight that’s required, or even an oracle or MacBeth’s three witches to anticipate what could happen. It’s covering all your basis before the “big game,” as it were. It’s strategic planning; it’s game theory, if you will. It’s preparation. It’s posing multiple options for alternative developments in the campaign. It’s “If this, then that.” It’s learning from every political campaign, that when you think you’re ahead, then THAT’S the time to redouble your efforts, because that’s when you get sloppy and the other side gets vicious.

    There’s also this. More workers in America must join unions, of course, but they also ought to know why they are joining them and feel it’s their institutional home, and not just in name. Not doing house-to-house visits, as the UAW decided, strikes me as not only arrogant and lazy but brain-dead. Instead of focusing on what the evil far right did (and they did their evil well) we should be sobered by what our side did wrong, which is failing to energize, educate and mobilize its base . If union organizing were like sports, and the outcome was this dismal, the coach would be fired. Well, we can’t fire them, but at least let’s not make excuses for the VW organizing crack-up. I’m all for learning lessons, but if the lesson is “the other side cheated,” we’re doomed.

  3. Mike and Jake,

    No one will argue that the UAW effort was flawless, nor that it should not have campaigned more vigorously in the community and by visiting workers at home. In retrospect, we know that interference from Republican politicians and massively funded anti-union advocacy groups filled the space left by VW’s own corporate neutrality. But it was rational in the first place for the UAW and IGMetall to campaign to insure that VW management would remain neutral in an expedited election process. Now it is evident to all including the UAW that management neutrality in itself is insufficient, and that the campaign among workers and in the community has to sink much deeper roots. The point of analyzing a union defeat is not to place blame, but to learn useful lessons for future union organizing campaigns at VW and elsewhere. We can be sure that “right-to-work” advocacy groups will have learned from Chattanooga the utility of “exercising their free speech rights” by directly interfering with workers’ rights in union representation elections, and not only in the South. So it is important that the UAW pursues its NLRB objections to the VW election results, and even more important that future union campaigns are better prepared to cope with this huge challenge.

    • Yours doesn’t wash. Saying you’d have needed 20-20 hindsight to have avoided an attack by GOP pols in Tennessee is giving no credit to good planning. And faulting the UAW is not assigning blame; it’s looking for accountability, going backward and forward. Che Guevara (if I can quote him at all) said that a revolutionary learns more from mistakes than successes. True enough. What matters is what we learn going forward. But the UAW’s was an old mistake. They had years to learn it.And did they really need to re-learn that an organizing drive works best when it’s done by workers maximally involved in their own fight? It may be an object lesson for a new generation of organizers, but the UAW itself can’t get a pass on this one. Even Che Guevara would have reproached compadres who were this incompetent or this dismissive of what really builds union solidarity–the struggle itself.

  4. There is a certain pervert “truth” to this but to economic democracy thru union representation in ‘negative’ is hogwash. The UAW, as most unions, have lost how to organize. The UAW admitted after the election they had not become part of the workers community. I saw it for 30 years as an organizer…”the blitz method”…send in lots of “organizers” who stay at upscale hotels….rounds of golf…hit the watering holes….’boots on the ground???? I don’t think so…that’s hard work and you have to get your nose out of the computer screen…talk to people….OMG!

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