Who Lost Chattanooga? The UAW Failure at VW

volkswagen-chattanoogaBy Steve Benton(At-Large Steering Committee member from Atlanta, Georgia)

Many postmortems regarding the union organizing failure at the VW plant in Chattanooga have focused on the aggressive anti-union resistance that swarmed into town ahead of the election to undermine what appeared to be a pre-ordained outcome between VW and the United Auto Workers. The arrangement between the company and the union was rather simple: in exchange for a neutrality agreement by the UAW, whereby the union agreed in advance to help control costs (meaning workers’ wages and benefits) to help the company remain competitive, VW would not oppose an organizing drive that would result in a management-labor cooperative business model that Volkswagen has found to be quite successful.  The Chattanooga plant, the only one in the VW system outside of China to be without union representation, was an anomaly that needed to be rectified. Thus, the organizing drive was initially greeted with excitement by the majority of workers, especially since the company seemed to be in favor of the idea, or at least not opposed to it.

So what happened? No matter how hard the UAW tried to smile affably and appear rehabilitated from its wicked, wicked ways, it simply could not overcome the stigma of being the bully who beat up your honor student. It was not for lack of trying. UAW President Bob King has made dozens of media appearances  since the collapse of the US Auto Industry in 2009 promoting the  new enlightened autoworkers union that learned the hard way that management and labor need to work together to assure competitiveness and viability in the global marketplace. Five years, however, has not erased the memory of General Motors filing for bankruptcy and the taxpayer-funded bailouts that kept the industry on life-support until its turnaround. Obviously, the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit just last year was an additional blemish on the UAW, even though the two events are unrelated, except in the eyes of conservative anti-union aficionados and those who believe them without question.

NWU March on Washington - MLK 50

NWU March on Washington – MLK 50

Clearly, the UAW came to town with a reputation deficit, but that could have been overcome with a little persistence and some clear headedness. It is easy to assign the organizing drive’s death blow to conservative interlopers like Senator Bob Corker and State Senator Bo Watson whose apocalyptic threats certainly swayed some undecided minds. But that deflects blame away from the UAW itself, for in its effort to seem non-threatening and non-confrontational, it failed to be engaging at all, or at least as much as was required if it hoped to succeed.  Not only did the union fail to gather support from community organizations that would have been sympathetic to it, they also decided not to visit individual workers in their homes, apparently because VW mentioned that it violates German labor union norms.  Whether or not this was a deliberate strategy to appease VW or was merely the result of being overconfident about the outcome of the election remains to be determined. But this failure made it possible for anti-union forces to move in and plant the seeds of fear in the minds of families, friends, and neighbors that a Yes vote for the UAW would sacrifice the economic future of Chattanooga and surrounding communities because it would scare off potential employers who wanted to move to the area but who might change their minds if moving there meant dealing with labor hassles. Confining their efforts to the workplace prevented the UAW from refuting these charges one on one at workers’ homes.

However, beyond bad timing, bad strategy, and being labelled as the Monster That Ate Detroit, what really sank the UAW was the fact that the VW workers in Chattanooga were not especially unhappy and were not nursing any abiding grievances. If the promise of union representation is higher wages and better benefits, then the pre-negotiated neutrality agreement between the UAW and Volkswagen proved toxic. The two-tier wage structure the UAW helped institute at the Big Three in Detroit meant that the Chattanooga workers  were already earning as much as new hires in Michigan, and in some cases more when the cost of living in factored in. Moreover, the works council representation carrot was not a great incentive in isolation given that the workers reported they are often asked for their input regarding production and other matters. Work and safety conditions were not an issue because the plant is almost brand new and is well-kept. Health care benefits, long a glittering gem that unions held up in front of the eyes of potential members, is really no longer much of an issue. In short, the UAW did not have a lot to offer the workers that the workers did not already have. In addition, the neutrality agreement was perceived by many to be an admission that the union would not militate for higher wages on behalf of the workers if it was potentially damaging to VW’s market share. Some workers who voted No cited the neutrality agreement as the motive for their vote in spite of the fact that they wanted the UAW to represent them. What is the point, they asked, of having a union if their purpose is to hold down wages?

solidarity of labourAlso, the labor movement, especially in the manufacturing sector, has to come to terms with the fact that advances in human resources theory and practice have been adopted by many companies to quell worker dissatisfaction, reduce turnover, and compete globally with their rivals even when plant site location is geared towards areas with surplus labor, such as in many areas of the southern United States where the agrarian economy has been dominant well into the present day. Above all else, the South needs jobs and is happy to welcome a new plant or factory to an area that has had a paucity of them. Moreover, in an area of the country where paternalism and deference is woven into the culture there is little experience or history of viewing employers as adversaries out to harm them. Indeed, in many cases the opposite attitude is true. An Alabama autoworker summed up worker satisfaction this way when recalling his experience at a Mercedes plant:  “They were proud to work there. They’re told when they’re hired that they’re the best, and if people don’t work there it’s because ‘they’re not good enough and you are.'” Sometimes a pat on the back is all it takes. From the outside looking in, that kind of simplistic deference and naïve happiness can be maddening, and many observers are baffled because it looks as if Southern workers are voting against their best interests. But it is eminently practical given the employment situation in many areas of the South. As one VW worker in Chattanooga explained after voting down the union, “Are you kidding? This is Chattanooga. This is as good as it gets.”

The UAW needs to wait for a time when “as good as it gets” is no longer good enough before they can make any headway in the South.

1 comment for “Who Lost Chattanooga? The UAW Failure at VW

  1. Jim Hickey
    February 20, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Hey Steve!

    Here we are, writers who take words and ideas seriously. That means of course that we have to be willing to be critical of each other, at the same time that we welcome the discussion that involves such critique. Out of such a nexus comes the potential for a richer understanding and a clearer idea of how we can move forward. Does that make sense to you?

    Before I respond to your posting, I wanted further to contextualize what the likes of us are up to when we do this work, communicating, arguing, considering, etc.
    *The first step, generally anyway, is to address the question of what the facts are, recognizing that we’ll choose to focus on certain facts more than, or instead of, others.
    *The second step is to ask and provide some sort of answer to the query, “Why do these facts exist?”
    *The third step is to ponder and seek to explain the relations of causality, correlation, and so forth that connect the facts together, to ‘do some analysis’ and develop arguments.
    *The fourth step is to posit some conclusions from all of this.
    *The fifth step is to suggest some actions that these conclusions lead us to believe are apt.
    Probably, different folks might present this in different ways, but I’m hopeful that we can agree that the essentials here are not in dispute.

    So that brings me to your article. It is a richly layered look at a very complex phenomenon. Your first paragraph is pretty hard to argue with. As this sort of conversation continues, we might add detail and such, but we’d have to stipulate that only thugs or ostriches would find much to be contrary about here.

    Your second paragraph is another matter. I’ve been extremely critical of union leadership in general and UAW leadership in particular on occasion. But I’m not sure what you mean by “wicked, wicked ways.” That would be a good thing to flesh out a bit perhaps.

    You then suggest that UAW President Bob King, in his speeches and such, has tried to demonstrate that the union was not “the bully who beat up (the) honor student.” What straight-A student would that be?

    Folks at “Labor Notes” and lots of other places have roundly criticized UAW givebacks and attempts to navigate the current monopolies-in-crisis-while-they’re-making-record-profits environment. Are you saying that this ameliorative attitude is admirable?

    You then imply–you may not intend it, but the words are there–that the auto workers and the union are to blame for General Motors’ meltdown a few years back. I’d have to say that such a view flies directly counter to the facts and would need a serious adjustment not to be plain wrong. Maybe you’d disagree? Maybe the implication here is not what you wanted to convey? Inquiring minds would like to hear more.

    Then the issue of Detroit’s bankruptcy shows up. Similar inquiries would be forthcoming here, since to say that Motor-City’s crash-and-burn was “an additional blemish” on the UAW is either ruling class propaganda or false. It’s certainly not a fact in the sense that average wages’ here in the South being lower than in more union-rich environments is a fact.

    Your third paragraph seems to be the heart of the matter. I don’t know if the situation is as you describe it, but it seems very likely. And your analysis is, as the British like to say, ‘spot on’ here in my estimation. A lack of engagement and a lot of optimistic assumptions almost always lead to disaster, sooner or later.

    Then, rather than positing that such errors were remediable, you present your fourth paragraph, in which you develop a much deeper critique of UAW as too complicit with management and not having “anything” to offer workers. I’d have to disagree with this as a factual or an analytical perspective, but that’s probably a discussion for another day.

    I’d ask this though, to start. If what you suggest is true, then why did the union nearly win? If the errors in the third paragraph are remediable, as I’d have to hope that–since all errors that are not lethal are remediable in general–they are, then how could we conclude that UAW’s near victory could not become an actual win if engagement and outreach and real organizing and community-alliances and all the rest took place? Do you see what I’m getting at?

    At this point, having provided some interesting ideas, some facts that we’d have to say are not accepted by the likes of me as true, and some analysis that combined both ideas that persuaded me and ones that seemed implausible or wrong, you proffer your fifth paragraph. It begins with a nod to “advances in human resources theory and practice.” Are you saying that workers are passive and pacified? Again, I’d dispute that such ‘advances’ had won the day, eliminated deep-seated class conflict, or however else you might want to put the matter, if the point is to say that unions no longer are relevant because management theory takes care of all that unions might offer.

    You then switch gears and state that Southerners generally, “the South” want jobs so much that they’d do anything to get them. This assertion simplifies a very complex reality–which is what all of the analyses of Chattanooga that pointed to outside money’s and Tennessee Republicans’ furious attempts to stop UAW were talking about, in part–in a way that I’d like to see a lot more discussion, research, and analysis about. I’d bet that such a process of discovery would yield a much different set of conclusions that that here in Dixie we’re “happy to welcome” employers whatever they do to workers, the environment, the tax base, etc.

    You then simplify another extremely complex reality–“paternalism and deference” you call it, and try to tie this simple idea–which I and others would reject as a simple notion–to this. Southerners thus have “little experience or history of viewing employers as adversaries out to harm them.” And this is seriously wrong. Birmingham was an armed camp in the thirties. Greensboro, N.C. witnessed mass murder of union organizers as recently as the late seventies. The entire history of slavery, Jim Crow, chain gangs, and on and on and on is a situation of ’employers out to harm’ workers.

    The evidence, both historical and contemporary, is dispositive that you are incorrect in this assessment, notwithstanding that some anecdotes and data obviously will show the sorts of ‘deference’ that your quotation here from the Mercedes plant worker provides. Thus, in any event, when you say, “that kind of simplistic deference and naïve happiness can be maddening,” you are talking about yourself, or about a few instances. You are not legitimately discomfited by what is happening, because what is happening as a whole is not only not as you say it is, but it is also quite arguably the opposite of what you state.

    So here we are: disagreeing, trying to assess what’s happening, looking at things. You move on by switching gears again. In this ‘culture’ in which, in your view, deference makes class conflict negligible, a worker from VW can say, “Are you kidding?…This is as good as it gets.” This is a very different sort of response than deference, eh?

    Your conclusion from this is that the UAW will just have to give up for now and wait for things to get worse. But wait a minute. The union almost won and did little to engage and made at least a few mistakes and had at least ‘some baggage’ to explain that it didn’t account for very well. Why should they give up? It just doesn’t seem to add up, to me.

    Even more to the point, this worker’s statement wasn’t about things being “good.” It was about how a little less lousy was better than horrific. “Are you kidding? This is Chattanooga. This is as good as it gets.” In any fair estimation of the meaning of these words, an analyst would have to see approximately equal parts of despair and resignation. So how can waiting for things to be worse than despair and resignation be a good tactic? I’d say that we have work to do now, and we’d better get to it.

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