The Union of Auto Workers’ bid for recognition at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was narrowly defeated last week by 712 votes to 626, a difference of 6.5% of the vote – hardly the stunning defeat reported by the mainstream media. Volkswagen management, under pressure from its corporate headquarters, had agreed to remain neutral in the campaign, unlike most US corporations who attempt to prevent unionization at all costs. If the UAW had succeeded, VW would have been the first foreign auto plant in the South to be unionized.
What was noteworthy about the election was the unprecedented high-profile intervention by Republican politicians, who pulled out all the stops to defeat the bid. Their panic over the possibility of a pro-union vote signifies the erosion of the Republican party’s southern strategy of using racism to suppress unionization and the social safety net while keeping workers voting against their economic interests.
Economic expansion in the South has led to increased support for unions and worker self-confidence. As Steven Pearlstein commented in the Washington Post, “incomes in the region still lag those of the North and West, while unemployment rates in many states are higher than the national average. And those once-grateful and -docile workers are beginning to notice – even in right-to-work states such as Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, where union membership grew by 19 percent or more last year – the fastest rates in the country.”
Not only did right-wing billionaire Grover Norquist post billboards in the town depicting the UAW as having destroyed Detroit, Republican senator Bob Corker called a press conference on the eve of the vote specifically to claim that VW would manufacture a new mid-size SUV in the Chattanooga facility if the UAW was defeated – tying the possibility of jobs to rejecting the union. VW immediately denied any connection between the vote and the decision where to build the new model. Tennessee state legislators attacked VW as promoting an “un-American” labor campaign and threatened to withhold tax incentives for the company’s expansion if the union was recognized.
Obama was moved to retort that the Tennessee politicians were “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers,” according to Reuters. But that is a cheap piece of xenophobia: VW itself was in favor of union recognition, since that would have enabled it to set up a “works council” similar to those at their other factories. What the politicians wanted to buttress was the cheap labor strategy of the Southern elite – which is why they are also so opposed to affordable health care, expansion of Medicaid, and a living wage in the region.
Union leaders bitterly denounced Republican interference, but statements by anti-union workers in the factory showed that right-wing depictions of the UAW as an outside group coming in to impose bureaucratic control over the workforce and jeopardize their jobs had resonated with sections of the workforce and plant management. Union activists in the plant told labor correspondent Mike Elk of In These Times that they had seen “multiple low-level supervisors and salaried employees at the plant wearing ‘Vote No’ T-shirts in the days leading up to the union election,” even though they were not eligible to join.
Mike Jarvis, an hourly worker and member of the anti-union “No 2 UAW” campaign, told the Washington Post that many workers had been persuaded to vote against the deal by the terms of a neutrality agreement negotiated between VW and the UAW, which they understood as the union brokering a deal not to bargain for wages above what was offered by VW’s competitors in the United States. “We got people to realize they had already negotiated a deal behind their backs—[workers] didn’t get to have a say-so,” he told reporters.
Mike Burton, an hourly worker who created the website for No 2 UAW, said many workers objected to the UAW having initially sought unionization based on what it said was having a majority of cards signed favoring a union. “We were only given one choice [of a union],” he told Mike Elk. “When you are only given one choice, it’s BS. It would be nice if we had a union that came in here and forthright said, ‘Here is what we can offer.’ I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW,” he said. “There are great unions out there, and we just weren’t offered any of them.”
Elk points out that the neutrality agreement may have weakened the UAW’s campaign by preventing one-on-one meetings with workers at their homes, a standard organizing tactic used to build trust with workers and answer questions about individual needs and concerns. Moreover, as he reports, “Many activists I spoke with during my two trips to Chattanooga said that when they saw the UAW being continually blasted on local talk radio, newspapers and billboards, they wanted to get involved to help build community support. However, they say that the UAW was lukewarm in partnering with them. … Community activists said they had a hard time finding ways to coordinate solidarity efforts with the UAW, whose campaign they saw as insular rather than community-based.”
The successes of the movement against low pay in the fast-food industry and at Walmart have all been based on alliances between unions and community groups. By eschewing such partnerships, and failing to engage the broader community, the UAW may have facilitated the right’s portrayal of them as outsiders. As one community organizer told Mike Elk: “There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you. Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.”
But the Republican intervention has raised many questions about the politicians’ role. The Washington Post commented: “many of the plant’s workers are themselves conservatives – and have started to wonder why the politicians who represent them oppose their right to organize.” The report quotes John Wright, a test driver at the plant who identifies as a right-leaning independent, who said he was puzzled when Corker came back to Nashville to voice opposition to the UAW. “I can’t for the life of me understand why the Republicans and big money are coming against us so bad. To me, they’re attacking the average worker,” he said. “To have politicians think that there’s nothing more important than coming down and picking on the little guy because he wants a union, there’s a national debt we’ve got to control, we have foreign policy things that we elect them to go up there to do, but you have to fly home for an emergency meeting because I want a union?”
Republican politicians’ fear of unions will not go unnoticed as Southern workers join the minimum wage struggle. They have had a valuable lesson about the contradictions in Republican rhetoric and the vulnerability of the political elite to worker organization and political independence.