Labor’s Southern Strategy

by Chris Brooks and Gene Bruskin

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Once again, the United Auto Workers have been defeated in a union election at Nissan, this time in the rural town of Canton, Miss. After failed organizing drives at a Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., in 1989 and 2001, and at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2014, victory in the South continues to elude the UAW. To date, the union has yet to win a wall-to-wall union election at any non-U.S. headquartered automaker in the South.

Why does labor keep coming up short south of the Mason-Dixon Line? What strategies might work moving forward? Labor journalist Chris Brooks spoke with veteran union organizer Gene Bruskin to dissect these questions and explore the obstacles and opportunities unions face in organizing the South.

Brooks: Many companies pit nonunion workers in the South against unionized workers elsewhere in the country. For example, Boeing moved production of their 787 Dreamliner from union-strong Seattle to non-union, right-to-work South Carolina and then offered an ultimatum to the Seattle Machinists local: either open your contract and take concessions or we will move production of the next generation of jetliners to the South. After a contentious contract ratification vote, Seattle’s Boeing workers had their pensions frozen and suffered huge increases in their health care costs. Boeing, the largest and most profitable airplane manufacturer in the country, was able to force concessions on 30,000 workers in Seattle, the Machinists’ largest bargaining unit, by whipsawing them against thousands of non-union workers in South Carolina. [See Josh Eidelson, Conflicting Dreams: The strikes that made Boeing a national flashpointDollars & Sense, September/October 2011.]

Similarly, the United Auto Workers (UAW) have suffered a deep decline in membership, from 1.5 million members in 1979 to less than 400,000 today. Unionized autoworkers have seen the industry’s standards eroded over the years due to the influx of non-union operations. Speaking in 2011, then-UAW-president Bob King said “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW.”

If unions want to protect their gains and win back what they have lost then they must organize in the South. Do you agree?

Bruskin: Completely, but I would add that it’s a much older problem. There was a moment in post-Civil War Reconstruction when slavery had ended and the industrial age was beginning: the transcontinential railroad was being built and massive industries started to be developed. It’s in this period that the National Labor Union (NLU) was formed. It was the first real, although short lived, attempt to bring trade unions together. Women were also organizing and forming unions in this period and suddenly there were four million free Black workers in the South, including skilled laborers who had worked as ship-builders and blacksmiths and other trades.

Women and Black workers who had organized unions went to the white male NLU in 1868-9 to urge them to organize all workers, saying that failure to do so would doom the labor movement to constant labor competition between unorganized women and Black workers on one side and organized white men on the other. Ultimately the NLU decided against including women and Black workers.

We’ve been paying the price every since. There have been continued efforts over the past century to organize the South, but usually not as part of a broader labor strategy, but as one shot organizing drives. There is more than one election at stake here, since the South operates both as an ocean of low-wage labor and political reaction.

Brooks: Since there aren’t many large-scale organizing drives these days and union membership is so low in the South, there’s a lot of media attention whenever a big Southern union vote comes up. The most recent example was the UAW’s failed organizing drive at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi. Based on my conversations with workers at Nissan, I think there were a few major reasons why the UAW failed. One was Nissan’s fierce anti-union campaign.

What we saw in Canton was a doubling down on the Chattanooga strategy. You might remember that the Auto Workers were defeated in their 2014 organizing drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., not by the company, which was ostensibly neutral, but by what was likely the largest and most expensive anti-union campaign ever waged by third-party groups. At Canton, the UAW faced what I called “the anti-union trifecta”: a hostile employer, business advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity—which sent out 25,000 mailers and produced videos for television and radio ads—and the Mississippi state government. Days before the vote, the Governor of Mississippi said “If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions.”

A key lesson of the Volkswagen organizing drive was that even if the company claims to be neutral, the political and economic establishment of the South is not. The UAW has to go into every organizing drive in the South knowing that it will be the fight of their life. They union is not only going up against a hostile multinational corporation, but the entire political apparatus of the state and the business community.

So, on the one hand, I’m sympathetic when UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel describes the Nissan campaign as “one of the nastiest anti-union campaigns in the modern history of the American labor movement.” It was bad and Corporate America’s hostility towards unions should be the scandal of the industrialized world. But, on the other hand, that statement is kind of laughable because the conditions that the workers at Smithfield faced were so much worse.

Bruskin: Smithfield had experience working with unions, but intended to keep them out of the million-square foot plant in Tar Heel, N.C., which was the biggest hog slaughterhouse in the world. The company took over an enormous area of the state to raise the 8 million pigs a year they needed to supply the plant. This was part of the company’s strategy to gain a competitive advantage through vertical integration, controlling the production process from “squeal to meal.” It would have been very difficult for Smithfield to develop that kind of farming operation anywhere else in the country.

The first time the UFCW tried to organize the plant in 1994, they thought they could just go through the normal NLRB procedures. The company just unloaded on them. During the second election in 1997, the company brought in the Sheriff’s office, they stood outside the plant with armed rifles when people walked into work. During the vote, the lights went out in the plant when people were casting ballots. They beat up organizers. It was a massive, unrestrained employer campaign. It wasn’t public though, because the union was keeping it quiet outside of the plant and the company was exerting total control inside of it.

It took years before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the courts weighed in. It also took years before the union decided to engage in a big public campaign outside the plant to counter the company’s inside campaign. We put a lot of time, energy and resources into telling the story of the workers, not just in the plant. but also in an aggressive media campaign, also in the churches all around the state and in public places all along the East and Midwest, using key allies like Jobs with Justice. These stories put the company on the defensive. By making the oppression that workers faced in the plant synonymous with the Smithfield brand, we created a wall of public pressure to guard workers against the company’s attacks. I think we successfully exposed Smithfield’s actions in a way that hurt their brand, in a way that the UAW hasn’t seemed to be able to do to Nissan or Volkswagen.

Brooks: Another reason why the UAW failed at Nissan was because they failed to build a strong organizing committee that acted like a union on the shop floor before they won the election. This appears to have been a serious flaw in the UAW’s two previous organizing drives at Nissan, both in Smyrna, Tenn. One was in 1989 and the other in 2001. After the 2001 defeat at Smyrna, Bob King—then UAW vice president and head of the union’s National Organizing Department—admitted that the union ran the election with an organizing committee that was “substantially smaller than normal” because the union “thought the issues were so great” they didn’t need a full committee.

A similar lesson was obviously on display in Canton. According to organizing committee members I spoke with there, the committee was too small, was not representative of every department and every shift, and only half the committee was very active. On top of that, they went to a vote without having a supermajority signed up on cards. Do you agree that a strong organizing committee is the best defense against an employer’s anti-union campaign and that is a major reason for the UAW’s failure?

Bruskin: It was clear to us in the Justice@Smithfield campaign that you could not win relying solely on worker meetings and house visits or relying solely on a public community campaign that built lots of solidarity. We had to have a presence in the plant. The union had to be live on the job. One of the strongest arguments used by companies during a union drive—and this was definitely the case at Nissan—is to attack the union as an institution. Nissan made it out to be a fight between the company and some institution in Detroit. The company hopes to turn the union election into a question of whether the company or the UAW is good or bad. By doing so, they take away any sense that the union is the workers themselves in the plant. And while the union may say they are the workers, unless the workers in the plant see each other as the union while working on the job, then those third-party attacks can win.

At Smithfield, we put an enormous amount of effort into building visible activity inside the plant. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this is easy. It was extremely difficult, but in the end having workers see one another in collective action in a variety of ways, not being fired, and even winning things is how the union takes on a living presence and is not seen as some distant Big Union organization. The union becomes the person across the line from you. That makes an enormous difference in any union drive.

Brooks: According to both the UAW and workers I have spoken with, about 80 percent of the Nissan workforce is Black. At Nissan, the maintenance employees, which are the highest paid classification in the plant, were almost exclusively white and anti-union. So there were clear racial divisions in the plant. Beyond that, the UAW tried to connect the union election to the civil rights struggles for voting rights in the South. “Workers’ rights are civil rights” is a smart message because the right to a fair union election, free from a coercive and hostile anti-union campaign from the employer, should be a human right. The highpoint of the civil rights component to the organizing campaign was the March on Mississippi, where thousands marched in Canton to a rally where actor-activist Danny Glover, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and UAW President Dennis Williams spoke.

Bruskin: Race is a critical component in every Southern organizing drive. At Smithfield, the white workers were a minimal factor, because there were so few of them and they were largely in the maintenance department. We did have an enormous challenge with the language divide: About one half of the workforce was Latino and the other half was Black and the two couldn’t easily talk to one another. So overcoming that obstacle took a tremendous amount of focus. There is going to be some variation of this in many plants in the South.

It’s really important to figure out where the social groupings of workers are outside of the plant. Organizers can’t step foot in the plant and it can be very difficult to find out where workers live. At Smithfield, workers lived in a 50-mile-radius of the plant, so we were very active in the church. We included big name preachers like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and William Barber to give the campaign moral authority, but we also focused on moving the campaign into the in the churches where the workers actually were, so their own preachers would be talking directly to the workers with the message “we are behind you.” We went to the soccer clubs, where people played every Sunday morning. We also went to the Latino nightclubs. We built the union through communities that workers actually participate in. Local institutions can play a big role as workers are taking risky actions in the plant. We had a full-time minister and a full-time community organizer focusing on just building support with local Black and Latino institutions around Smithfield.

If activists feel isolated in the plant then they go home and their primary point of contact with the organizing campaign is a house visit, then the union never becomes more than an individual decision. I think there is a real question about how to turn a union drive into a movement, like the civil rights movement, which is led by workers who feel connected to something larger than themselves so they have the courage to face down the company’s hostility. So tying the organizing drive to the civil rights movement is a great idea, it is the right kind of idea, but it has to be real for the workers.

Brooks: One of the Nissan workers, Robert Hathorn, told me a story about anti-union activities led by workers in the lead-up to the vote. He said there was a worker that would stand outside the turnstiles at the entrance of the factory every morning with a bullhorn, shouting “Nissan is the giver of life!” and that he wakes up every morning and gives thanks to Nissan for giving him a chance. I believe Nissan socially engineers this kind of reaction. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country. The company chose to locate its factory in Canton, a town with a population of 13,000 people. They employ over 6,000 people at the plant and pay some of the highest blue-collar wages in the state. So the choice of where to locate the factory and how much to pay workers is all part of the company’s anti-union strategy.

The challenge for the union is to figure out how to raise workers’ expectations to the point where they are willing to take the kinds of risks that you are discussing, by taking action and making demands on the company rather than settling for what they have, even though what they have is better than what many people in their community have.

Bruskin: Even at Smithfield, which is in a different industry—so it didn’t come near to matching the kind of wages that are paid at VW or Nissan—the pay was higher than at the chicken plants in the area. Even though everyone always wants a raise, that can’t be the focus of an organizing drive. Wages are something that companies always play with in organizing drives. They make promises, they raise them to be competitive with the union that is organizing the workers. Instead, we have to figure out what key issues, other than wages, really upset people. At Smithfield, the key issue was safety. We organized safety fights inside the plant, department by department, during the organizing drive to challenge the dangerous conditions that workers faced.

In any union drive, anyone who is not a “yes” is a “no.” Action is the best measure of support, better than signing cards. If you try to organize an action on an issue in a department and only three people out of 25 in the department participate, then you probably have only three “yes” votes and everyone else is a “no.” Someone’s chances of voting for the union are pretty good if they are willing to sign their name on a petition to demand workplace changes and is then willing to march on the boss during their lunch break with 24 other workers to present that petition. If a worker does that, then the chances are really good that they will vote yes, especially if that action results in a win. The results are far better than if they just signed a card.

It sounds like Nissan made extensive use of captive-audience meetings. It’s crucial that workers take a stand during those meetings. It doesn’t take 10 workers, you can get two or three people to challenge management in those meetings and the company will put a stop to them or have to change tactics and have smaller and smaller meetings. The company can’t do anything to workers that speak up in those meetings because there are too many witnesses. But if I’m sitting there watching the company slam the union and the pro-union committee people are silent, I’m going to think to myself, “Man, these people are as scared as I am.” That’s a signal to me that the union is weak. Conversely, if I see someone standing up to the company, then I think to myself, “Wow, this woman is somebody who is going to speak up for me if I have a problem, and look at the company getting scared.” Those are moments when you figure out if you have the strength to even have an election. It’s a key measurement.

Brooks: You talked about the importance of an inside-outside strategy, where an outside strategy puts public pressure on the company, and that protects the workers organizing actions on the inside of the plant—using public pressure to stave off the worst of the company’s anti-union hostility. In the UAW campaign, I didn’t seem any sign of obvious leverage over Nissan’s bottom line. There were a limited number of protests at Nissan dealerships in the South, but not as part of any prolonged or nationally coordinated campaign to really pressure the company. The union also did not publicly attempt to leverage the power that workers have in the company’s logistics chain or at auto parts suppliers.

For example, the auto parts supplier Shiroki North America operates three non-union plants spread out over Tennessee and Georgia. Shiroki produces parts for multiple car companies and is the main supplier of certain door parts for four Nissan vehicle lines. Like many auto parts companies, Shiroki does not produce parts that are then warehoused until an auto maker needs a shipment, but instead relies on just-in-time production and only produces enough parts at any one time to cover a limited number of production shifts at the companies they supply to, including Nissan. I spoke with an employee at the Shiroki plant who said the company attempts to maintain a one and a half day stock, so if they had a three-day shutdown it would disrupt the supply chain and Nissan’s production process. Due to the fragility of the just-in-time production process, organizing workers and engaging in strategic work stoppages at auto part suppliers would be heavily disruptive to the companies that are reliant on them.

The entire just-in-time production process is a result of auto makers squeezing suppliers. The suppliers then squeeze their workers. So workers in auto parts plants are often working under even worse conditions for even lower pay and fewer benefits than auto workers in the large auto production facilities. So it seems like there is a good possibility that the union could have more success in organizing these parts suppliers.

You would think that the UAW would be interested in leveraging the weaknesses in the company’s global production process so they could at least try and pressure the company into not engaging in some of the more heinous anti-union behavior.

Bruskin: The UAW would have had to organize the parts suppliers first if they were to have that kind of leverage. Those would have been tough fights. The fundamental question of how to apply leverage to a company in a way that can actually an impact on how they handle their campaign is crucial.

At Smithfield, it was only after running two elections where the union got the crap kicked out of them and years of fruitless efforts at the NLRB that the UFCW finally decided that the only way to get a fair election where the company didn’t go absolutely crazy on the workers, like Nissan did, is if the union waged a public campaign against the company.

That’s different from a community campaign where leaders just take public stands saying “we’re with you.” Even if they are respected civil rights leaders or Bernie Sanders. The question has to be: what will it take to force the company into making an agreement with the union that recognizes the organizing rights of workers? At Smithfield, we won that agreement by going after the company in a variety of ways. We took the campaign to all of the outlets where their products were being sold and marketed. We talked about how Smithfield pork is packaged with abuse. The company was spending millions on their brand and we were damaging it by simply telling the truth. We did that internationally as well. In the end we got an agreement for an NLRB supervised election but with additional protections against company abuses. It was those additional rules that made it possible for us to win.

Brooks: One of the contrasts between the Volkswagen and Smithfield campaigns was that the UAW worked behind the scenes with the labor community in Germany to craft a deal with Volkswagen that resulted in a neutrality agreement, so it came down from on high, while the Smithfield workers had to engage in a long series of escalated collective actions that included the broader community and consumers to win a neutrality agreement with the company. One of the serious concerns I have with the current campaign that the UAW is running at Nissan is that the union seems to be hoping that all the media attention Nissan received for their hostile anti-union campaign and the unfair labor charges that the union has filed will convince the French government to push for neutrality at the company. The French government is the largest shareholder in Renault and Renault is the largest shareholder in Nissan. So the UAW seems be engaged in some top-down political maneuvering to force the company into neutrality, but once again it won’t be a victory won by the workers themselves.

Bruskin: All aspects of the campaign, including the public campaign, have to be involve workers at every level. It’s not hard to imagine Nissan going back into the plant and telling the workers that the UAW is working with the French government to overturn their election decision or something like that. It’s easy to third-party the union when workers are not involved.

Brooks: Nissan has a three tier workforce. In the top-tier are “legacy” employees. These were hired by Nissan when the plant first opened 14 years ago. They are paid the highest wage tier, receive the best healthcare benefits and fringe benefits like vacation time. About 40% of the plant is estimated to be temporary workers, which are employed by secondary companies and they constitute the bottom tier. In the middle tier are “pathway” workers, which started as temps but then were hired on by Nissan as direct employees of the company, but they can never top out at the same pay rate as legacy workers and they receive less generous benefits. The UAW’s organizing drive did not focus on organizing temp workers, it focused solely on organizing those workers employed directly by Nissan rather than organizing everyone and claiming that Nissan is a joint employer under the Browning-Ferris decision made by the Labor Board. So about 40% of the workforce, the ones in the plant who actually face the most exploitation, were written off in the campaign. Making the organizing even more difficult was the fact that many of these temps were performing the same jobs on the same lines as the employees that work directly for Nissan, so that meant that the only way to distinguish between the two was for the organizing committee in the plant to make sure they had an accurate list.

Bruskin: That definitely sounds like a setup that favors the employer. What happens when Nissan gives all the temps anti-union tshirts and then the workers on the fence think that thousands of their coworkers are against the union?

At Smithfield, one of the biggest challenges was huge turnover, hundreds of workers every month. You could go out and have a hundred good house visits in a week, which would be enormously difficult because workers are spread out over large distances in rural areas. And then the next week, thirty of those people could be gone and you would never know. It’s not like they call up the union to tell them that they are leaving. That was not a temp situation, but it was an enormous challenge because there was no way to have a complete list when half the people you visit in August are no longer working for the company in September.

Of course we have to stay on top of our lists as best we can, but what really has the greatest impact is building as strong a committee presence inside the plant as you can. That is something you can control. If you decide you can’t organize the temps, and I don’t know how the UAW handled this, then the committee are the ones you have to rely on to determine who is not a temp and who is not. In a plant that is that big with that many departments and multiple shifts, you would have to organize a committee that is truly representative. It’s a huge challenge. This is also why taking action to get the company to the table and win an election agreement can be necessary, because there are just so many factors working against the union.

Brooks: And if you don’t build the union leading into the election, how can you expect for workers to suddenly act like one after they win? And in the South, in a right-to-work state, we know that the employer’s campaign against the union isn’t going to end after the election. The company will be constantly putting pressure on workers to drop the union.

Bruskin: We aren’t just trying to win an election. We’re also trying to win a first contract, to build a strong local, and everything you do from the beginning has an impact on those second and third stages of the campaign. The laws are against us. The employer is fighting you. The Governor and Koch brothers are weighing in. And organizers struggle to just get workers to sign a card or just to get their name and address or get them to attend a meeting. And even if you win the union, it’s not unusual for the company to appeal and slow everything down and then fight to keep the union from getting a first contract, or at least from getting a good contract. So you can win the election only to get a bad contract and then workers drop their membership in the union, because you are in the right-to-work South. So to be thinking as far down the line as the first contract and establishing a strong local is immensely challenging, but in this environment it is necessary. But it can be done and for labor’s future, it must be done.

Chris Brooks is a former Southern organizer and covers the UAW for Labor Notes.

Gene Bruskin was the campaign director for the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Justice@Smithfield campaign, which resulted in the successful unionization of 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Foods hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2008. At the time, it was the largest successful private union election in decades and the largest victory in UFCW history.

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Reposted from Portside Labor

 

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How the UAW Lost at Nissan

by Dianne Feeley

IN EARLY AUGUST the UAW’s union recognition campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi ended in a disastrous 63% “no” vote — 10% greater than the loss at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee three and a half years earlier.

From the beginning of the decade-long campaign at Nissan the UAW sought community support, stressing that “Workers’ Rights = Civil Rights.” This was a particularly effective strategy given that 80% of the workers are African American, and Canton is 80% Black. And given the 6,000-strong march held this spring in support of the unionization drive, it seemed like the UAW was headed for victory.

But that was outside the sprawling plant. Inside management took an aggressive anti-union stance, holding captive meetings, blaring anti-union videos in the break rooms, and in the days just before the vote holding mandatory large group meetings and even one-to-one sessions. They explained how the UAW would not represent the interests of employees and other “facts.”

In listening to the voices of the Nissan workers, health and safety was a major issue, as it is in most non-union workplaces. Several mentioned Derrick Whiting, 37, who collapsed and died on the plant floor in September 2015. He had gone to the plant’s medical facility complaining of chest pains and was sent back to the line.

Anna Wolfe reported in the Clarion Ledger, “Some employees claim Nissan did not respond quickly to the crisis and even kept nearby production lines moving. The company denies these allegations, maintaining that safety at its automotive plant is ‘significantly better than the national average.’” (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/politics/2017/08/01/inside-fight-over-unionizing-nissan/508465001/)

Others planning on voting for UAW representation spoke about the need for job security and pensions. A big contradiction in the election, however, was the division among African Americans. At Nissan, the top-tier workforce averages $26 per hour while second-tier workers make $18 — but both are much higher than Canton’s per capita annual household income of $15,000. Given these economic disparities the company was effective in discouraging eligible workers from “rocking the boat” and voting for an untested union.

African Americans in Mississippi have few opportunities for relatively higher paying blue-collar jobs. Faced with both an anti-labor government and Nissan, many Black workers feared losing a stable, well-paying job. Meanwhile there was debate in the plant around management’s favoritism of whites in promotions and opportunities. But neither the in-plant issues of economic inequality nor the particular history of racism in the region were well understood by the UAW leadership. Had there been a strong in-plant committee capable of taking initiative, these could have been addressed.

Organizing Problems

Of the 6400 workers at the plant, only 3500-3800 were eligible to vote. The rest were temporary workers. In fact 2500 are employed by Kelly Services, not Nissan.

At Nissan there are three separate tiers. There are “legacy” workers who were hired in when Nissan began. Second are “pathway” workers who started as temporaries and gained full-time employment — but whose benefits will never equal the highest tier. There are approximately 1500 of these second-tier workers. Third are the “temporary” workers employed by Kelly Services.

As a retired autoworker, I see two huge organizing issues: 1) the pro-union workers didn’t come together and begin to act like a union but merely talked about why there should be one. 2) The UAW didn’t reach out to the temporary workers and draw them into the campaign.

Most autoworkers see how temporary workers are superexploited. They work as hard, or harder, than “legacy” workers but are paid significantly less, with no job security and zero benefits.

In watching the organizing drive from a distance, I’ve wondered what could the UAW organizers do to build a militant union at a large Southern plant, given that many of the problems Nissan workers faced were similar to the ones we had in UAW-represented plants.

After all, UAW officials had preached concessions as a way to keep our jobs since the 1980s. They, along with the corporations, sold two-tier wages and benefits to autoworkers, intimidating and slandering those of us who argued against this strategy.

Once imposed, the two-tier structure was rationalized. Unable to organize the foreign-owned transplants who had located in the South in order to keep unions out, the UAW maintained that until the proportion of unionized autoworkers grew, UAW workers were stuck with concessionary bargaining.

That’s a circular argument. We lost our power because the proportion of unionized autoworkers declined with the opening of the nonunionized transplants. Therefore, we were told, UAW workers must survive by taking concessions, waiting for a better day, when we can grow again and regain what we have lost. But through taking concessions, we undercut the reasons why unorganized autoworkers would want to join!

In the last round of Big Three negotiations, UAW President Dennis Williams chose to negotiate with Chrysler first. Many wondered about his choosing the smallest and weakest corporation for negotiation because it would set the pattern for the other two.

When the negotiated contract was announced, it retained the two-tier system and limited the percentage of workers who could climb up the ladder. To the surprise of Solidarity House (the UAW headquarters), Chrysler workers overwhelmingly rejected it. A second and slightly improved contract was approved — but today there are more job and pay categories than ever before.

The current contract expands the use of temporary workers. Yet the industrial union model is built on the concept that whatever one’s job, there is relatively little difference in pay, benefits and working conditions. Yes, skilled workers make more money, but with the same benefits. Permanent differentials erode collectivity on the shop floor, and allow management to promote a culture where workers see themselves as individuals competing against other workers.

A Different Strategy?

What could the UAW have fought for at Nissan to benefit the 2,500 Nissan temporaries? A core of UAW supporters, coming from all three tiers, could have begun to function as a union on the shop floor. They could have raised demands around health and safety issues. They could have contested discrimination that occurs when supervisors favor white workers and when one part of the workforce lacks security.

This would have changed the dynamic about what the union is and deepened the understanding and commitment to economic equality on the job. The union is not a foreign body injected into the Nissan plant, it’s the workers who have come together collectively to voice their demands and seek their implementation.

Under this model, building the union is the goal. Maybe the shop committee would be so strong it could challenge the racist system of promotion, maybe even force the company to get rid of Kelly Services and start hiring. But whether or not it could accomplish its goals, the union would function as an institution to carry out campaigns that its members decided upon.

It might even turn the tables on management, tracking Nissan’s suppliers and helping those workers to organize as a way of increasing the union’s power over the company’s just-in-time production.

Holding a recognition election would be a secondary goal. Whenever it happened the temporaries, whatever their formal status, should have the right to vote. Two potential contract demands might then be that temporaries become permanent employees and the wall between tiers be dissolved. That would be a union worth fighting for.

I believe an organizing campaign that united the workers around their needs could have won at Nissan — despite the words of the Republican governor who opposed the union, despite all the Nissan ads on local TV and all the intimidating tactics used on the job.

Such a campaign would transform the union, which today is a shell of what the UAW was. Once it did take on management through a variety of actions including delegations during break time, work-to-rule actions and quickie strikes — a strategy, by the way, that’s also needed in the already organized UAW plants.

reposted from Against the Current (https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/5082)

Pro-union rally in Mississippi unites workers with community

by Mike Elk

  • nissan-miss
    Workers and community members marched in Canton, Mississippi in support of Nissan workers’ right to unionize on Saturday. Photograph: Mike Elk for the Guardian

    For a mile outside Canton Multipurpose Complex on Saturday, the road was backed up. Many cars sported bumper stickers, pro-Bernie and pro-union.

    They came in school buses, hot rods, church vans and motorcycles, with license plates from Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois and Pennsylvania. A delegation of a dozen Nissan workers even came from Brazil, to support United Automobile Workers (UAW) activists who have faced illegal retaliation in a 13-year struggle to unionize the Japanese giant’s 5,000 workers in Mississippi.

    “I feel their pain because we have been through the same thing with Mercedes,” said Kirk Garner of Vance of Alabama, who has been part of the decade-long UAW effort to unionize there.

    Two weeks after the defeat of the Machinists Union at Boeing in South Carolina, an estimated 5,000 southern union activists gathered in Canton to lay the foundation of what they hope will be the large-scale community movements necessary to defeat anti-union forces nationwide – and in the White House.

    Community support is proving essential for union drives, as companies use politicians and expensive media buys to counter such campaigns. In South Carolina, Boeing spent $485,000 on TV ads and politicians warned that a successful union drive would discourage other companies from moving to the region. In 2014, anti-union forces used a similar strategy to defeat a high-profile attempt to unionize Volkswagen in Chattanooga.

    In Mississippi, as the UAW seeks a vote, Nissan has begun airing its own anti-union ads this week. The UAW claims that the company has told staff that if they unionize, the plant will move to Mexico. The company has denied the charge. In an email to the Guardian on Sunday, Nissan corporate communications manager Parul Bajaj said “the allegations made by the union are totally false” and accused the UAW of a “campaign to pressure the company into recognizing a union, even without employee support”.

    High-profile company ad campaigns can turn communities against unions. Workers often face not just intimidation from their bosses but also peer pressure from friends and neighbors, who warn of harm to the local economy.

    “I don’t think the pressure was as intense as it is now,” said GM worker John W Hill Jr, who was part of the first successful UAW effort to unionize workers in the south, 41 years ago at a GM plant in Monroe, Louisiana.

    “In 1976, there wasn’t the harsh anti-union sentiment that is so prevalent over the country right now … We didn’t have all the politicians and everybody against us.
    “I hope whenever the [Nissan] election is that they vote yes. But deep down inside, I think there is so much fear here and disconnect that I just don’t think [they will].”
    Hill was interrupted by a Nissan worker with a toddler on his shoulders: “Nah man, we got this, we got this. We are gonna beat them.”

    As they marched on the plant on an unusually warm March day, workers sang: “We are ready, We are ready, We are ready, Nissan.”

    They have organized a community coalition, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, that includes #BlackLivesMatter activists, church groups, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The coalition is calling for a mobilization not seen in the south since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

    More than 80% of Nissan’s workers in Canton are black. A win at Nissan could be a game-changer. On Saturday, they had a guest speaker.

    “If we can win here at Nissan, you will give a tremendous bolt of confidence to working people all over this country” Bernie Sanders told a crowd of 5,000. “If you can stand up to a powerful multinational corporation in Canton, Mississippi, workers all over this country will say, ‘We can do it too.’”

    sanders-in-miss

    Bernie Sanders speaks at the ‘March on Mississippi’ for workers’ rights in Canton. Photograph: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

    Out of 43 of Nissan plants worldwide, 40 are unionized. The only plants that are one in Canton, Mississippi and two in Tennessee. Workers say the lack of a union makes a difference. Bajaj said Nissan “respects and supports” employees’ decisions about who represents them.

    Many employees in Canton say they make less than $15 an hour, with starting wages for some at $13.46 an hour. Workers say they make $2 less each hour than those in Smyrna, where Nissan faces competition from unionized GM factories.
    Bajaj countered that the company’s “hourly wages are significantly above the average central [Mississippi] production wage of $16.70 per hour”.

    Many Canton workers also say they are forced to work for years as temporary employees and complain that they are denied vacation, only allowed to take time off in the last week of June and the first week of July – when the plant shuts down.
    Without a union, they say, workers are often forced to work in unsafe conditions.
    Since 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) has citedCanton facilities six times. In February, Osha issued a citation for a failure to have proper safety lights indicated when machines were on and for not instructing workers to turn off machines before fixing them.

    “I had to call [Osha] twice in the past month,” said Karen Camp, who works in the paint shop. “You couldn’t see 10ft in front of your face because of the ventilation problems. We know a union could help fix it.”

    In his email, Bajaj said: “The safety and well-being of our employees is always our top priority. We dedicate extensive time and resources to safety programs and training at the plant.” The Canton plant, she added, “has a safety record that is significantly better than the national average for automotive plants” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Workers say Nissan has fought the union every step of the way. In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board charged that the company and its temporary employee agency provider, Kelly Services, violated workers’ rights, with one manager threatening to close the plant if it went union. Nissan has said it is defending against the charge.

    Workers say the company routinely imposes one-on-one meetings, where they are questioned about their views on unionization and have their work histories reviewed. Some say those who support the union are routinely denied promotion. Others say pro-union workers have been unfairly let go.

    In March 2014, a 43-year-old pro-UAW Nissan worker, Calvin Moore, who had worked in the plant since 2004, was fired. Many workers began to protest.

    The actor Danny Glover, a supporter of Nissan workers who was also present at Saturday’s march, with NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, called a press conference to denounce the firing. Students from Jackson State and Tougaloo College engaged in civil disobedience at Nissan headquarters. Workers in Brazil organized protests in solidarity.

    Three months later, Moore was hired again. The win put wind in the union’s sails.
    “It bolstered people’s spirits,” Moore said on Saturday. “To be honest, people were happier for me than I was for myself.”

    Moore said community support and events, such as the March on Mississippi, were key to winning support among coworkers. “We have had a lot of non-union workers who have changed their mind about the UAW,” he said. “Events like this should help us get more support, especially when people see this on TV.”

    High-profile labor efforts could prove crucial not just to unions in the coming months and years, but also to Democratic attempts to win back Congress and the White House. Last year, Donald Trump won the largest share of union voters for a Republican since 1984. He has since focused on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US.

    However, with many of these new jobs being temporary, Democrats feel they can win union voters back by focusing on how to improve such jobs. Such a strategy, if successful, may not just to win back blue-collar voters. It could also help soften racial tensions that have spread among manufacturing workers.

    With Republicans fighting unionization nationwide, incoming Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez – who was labor secretary under Barack Obama – has signaled that he intends to focus on supporting efforts to unionize.
    In Canton, workers said their efforts could provide a model for the progressive movement in the age of Trump.

    “If there was ever a movement to be led,” said Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson, “it would be led out of Mississippi, because we have always led the movement.”

    • Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He is the co-founder of Payday Report and was previously senior labor reporter at Politico.  This article is reposted from The Guardian by agreement with the author.

Internationalism ? International Working Class?

Shifting Work to Mexico Now Up for UAW Vote
http://www.freep.com/story/money/cars/chrysler/2015/09/20/uaw-shifting-work-mexico-pays-higher-wages-us/72400262/
Reposted from Portside
Alisa Priddle and Greg Gardner
Detroit Free Press

Building more cars in Mexico.

It’s a flash point for about 40,000 UAW workers preparing to vote on a tentative agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, knowing the new four-year pact includes pay increases, profit sharing and bonuses but also shifts car production to plants south of the border.

It raises the question: Is Mexico to be feared as a low-cost producer that steals jobs? Or is it the low-cost producer best-suited to assemble lower-profit vehicles, freeing up money to pay U.S. workers higher wages to build trucks and utility vehicles in the U.S.? Continue reading

UAW Playing the Long Game, Ready for the Short Game at VW in Chattanooga

by Wade Rathke

workscouncilChairman of Volkswagen announced in Germany with the Tennessee Governor and US Senator Bob Coker from Tennessee hanging on every word, that the company will add 2000 workers, spend $600 million adding a new SUV line at the Chattanooga plant, and collect $166 million from the State of Tennessee in tax and other subsidies as well as $12 million in lagniappe to throw at job training for the new workers. On this score everyone can agree, but after that confusion reigns.

Senator Coker, speaking for the red-meat, union haters in the local and statewide business community, when asked for his reaction to both the plant expansion and news recently that the UAW had opened an office, chartered a local, and was hunkering down in its ongoing effort to unionize the plant, snarled through an office statement, “Any union can rent space in any city and open an office.” Well, that’s good to know, Senator? The Governor seemed more rooted in the emerging reality and praised the workers and the fact that the VW decision was a vote of confidence in them.

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UAW Local Union 42 Created at VW Chattanooga

by Paul Garver

The campaign to organize Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga is taking a new and interesting direction.

The UAW has chartered Local 42 as a new local organization representing workers at the VW plant.  According to the UAW press release, Local 42 will offer the workers the opportunity for a voice in the workplace similar to the VW works council system for employee representation in Germany.  Calling itself “Volkswagen’s works council partner,” the union pledged to continue its advocacy for state incentives to encourage VW to expand production and create jobs at the Chattanooga plant.

Unlike the usual American labor relations system the union will not have the right to exclusive representation, nor will it represent workers other than its own members.  However the UAW expects that the company will “recognize” the union once it has signed up a “meaningful” portion of its workforce as an organization that represents its own members.  Since the union had dropped its NLRB challenge to the February representation election it had narrowly lost, it could no longer at this time seek formal collective bargaining rights nor the right to exclusive representation of the work force.
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UAW Objections Withdrawal A Sign They Want a Second Shot Soon

by Wade Rathke

UAW(April 22)    Politicians and the in-plant anti-union committee at Volkswagen in Chattanooga were both chortling and celebrating the announcement that the UAW had withdrawn its election objections before the NLRB hearing on the issues raised in its recent, narrow defeat. They are laughing too soon. They are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession, rather than the more accurate understanding that this is a huge signal from the UAW that they are in fact deepening their commitment to keeping the campaign alive for a second shot at an election.

There are never any future guarantees in organizing about when the time might be right to go another round, but the UAW at the crossroads faced two choices. One was to fully engage on the legal struggle around their objections and run the clock out for years in back-and-forth appeals. This is usually the “long game” after an election defeat where basically the union tries to save face institutionally and to maintain other organizing efforts by giving organizers and leaders’ talking points framed on the notion that there’s still a heartbeat, that justice will be done, and hope is a plan. It’s a sad organizing strategy since even miraculously winning a second election after years would have tended to alienate the workforce, making a better result difficult. Continue reading