Workers Vanguard No. 1042
21 March 2014
UAW Tops Class Collaboration Paved the Way
Defeat for Labor at Tennessee VW Plant
For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize the Open Shop South!
The United Auto Workers (UAW) narrowly lost a key representation election at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in February by a vote of 712-626. The stakes were high: if the UAW had won, it would have marked a victory for workers not just in Chattanooga but more broadly, creating a breach for the labor movement in the open shop South. There is no question that the UAW was up against a determined opposition that wanted to keep the plant non-union. But the UAW bureaucrats hamstrung the organizing effort by pledging the union to maintain company profitability, as codified in the “neutrality” agreement that supposedly committed VW to not interfere with the unionization campaign. UAW officials forswore not only “conflict” with the automaker but even the necessary legwork to bolster union support, such as door-to-door and barstool organizing.
Much stock was put in VW’s supposed tacit endorsement of the union. Nothing could be further from the truth. By September 2013, a majority of Chattanooga VW workers had signed cards authorizing the UAW to represent them in collective bargaining. Volkswagen could have accepted the results of the card checks and recognized the union. But the bosses were hardly going to allow the UAW free rein in the plant. Company officials made clear that the union would get through the door only if it ceded many of its duties and functions to a German-style works council, a body that would have been under the thumb of management while giving the appearance that workers have a say in running the company.
While UAW president Bob King lauded the planned works council as a marker of the union’s partnership with VW, his “partners” were not about to roll out the welcome mat. Even under their current class-collaborationist leaderships, unions are the basic organizations of the workers to fight for their economic needs against the bosses. Keeping unions out means massively greater profits for the corporations. In Chattanooga, supervisors roamed the plant, spreading the anti-union gospel. Meanwhile, the unionization campaign drew heavy fire from zealous anti-labor forces financed by the likes of the Koch brothers and spearheaded by right-wing hatchet man Grover Norquist and such Republican politicians as Tennessee governor Bill Haslam and U.S. Senator Bob Corker. Threats from state GOP politicians to cut off tax subsidies to VW if the union won the vote are now the subject of a UAW complaint begging the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order a new election on the grounds of “outside interference.”
The anti-union campaign featured a heavy dose of racist divide-and-rule. Norquist’s “Center for Worker Freedom” erected billboards around Chattanooga showing the UAW’s name defaced to read “United Obama Workers” and the tagline: “The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicans [sic], including BARACK OBAMA.” Particularly in states of the former Confederacy like Tennessee, such use of the “O” word is unmistakably racist code for the “N” word.
The intertwining of racist reaction and hostility toward unions was made explicit by one Matt Patterson, now executive director of Norquist’s center. According to the Nation (14 November 2013), Patterson ranted in an op-ed piece last May: “One hundred and fifty years ago an invading Union army was halted at Chattanooga by the Confederate Army of Tennessee.... Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union—an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers.” One of the Confederate “heroes” of the Chattanooga battle was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader before the war and subsequently a founder of the Ku Klux Klan race-terrorists, an organization that has also served as shock troops for the bourgeoisie in spiking countless unionization drives.
All of this underscores that any attempt to organize the South must tackle head-on the anti-black racism that has long served the capitalists in dividing workers and weakening their struggles. And with the large number of Latino immigrants in the working class, union organizing cannot go forward without a fight against anti-immigrant bigotry. The labor movement must champion the struggle for black rights and demand full citizenship rights for everyone who has made it to the U.S.
Whether or not the UAW had won the vote at Chattanooga, the class collaboration of the union leadership is an obstacle to organizing more broadly. The fundamental starting point for a serious union organizing drive must be the understanding that this capitalist society is divided between two hostile classes whose interests are irreconcilably counterposed: the workers who have to sell their labor power and the capitalists who own the means of production and rake in massive profits by exploiting labor. Sowing illusions in a commonality of interests between the workers and their exploiters, the labor bureaucrats push reliance on the government agencies and political parties of the enemy class, from the NLRB to the Democrats. This strategy has led to one defeat after another for the labor movement.
As we wrote in “The Fight to Unionize the ‘Open Shop’ South” (WV No. 720, 1 October 1999):
“The last, feeble attempt by the CIO to organize the South following World War II, grotesquely called ‘Operation Dixie,’ was quickly shipwrecked on the shoals of the Cold War red purges, racism and the bureaucrats’ ties to the Democratic Party…. The union tops’ loyalty to the Democrats made them incapable of waging a fight against the Jim Crow white power structure, which was run by the Dixiecrats and their KKK auxiliaries.”
To transform the unions into bastions of class struggle requires a fight for a new leadership based on the political independence of the working class.
For Class Struggle, Not Class Collaboration
In the Chattanooga organizing drive, the UAW tops thought they could sneak into the South by presenting the union as dedicated to “labor-management cooperation.” The neutrality agreement committed the UAW to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages” of Volkswagen. Thus, the union bureaucrats agreed in advance to shackle Chattanooga auto workers with the lower wages and substandard working conditions that are hallmarks of non-union plants. This was hardly going to inspire confidence in workers that joining the union would better their lot. But it did provide grist for the mill of the anti-union forces around the group “No 2 UAW,” which made an impact on some workers who had signed UAW cards last year but later voted against the union.
The centerpiece of the neutrality agreement was the formation of a class-collaborationist works council modeled on the German Betriebsräte. This body, which the German union IG Metall urged the UAW to accept, would exercise jurisdiction over various shopfloor issues, from safety to scheduling of overtime, and oversee at least the first stage of the grievance process. The effect would have been to undercut the union, whose purpose is supposed to be to defend workers against the company. This is a far cry from the UAW in its heyday, when union committeemen faced with shopfloor attacks would stop the assembly line until management relented.
The UAW also explicitly abandoned the many temporary contract workers in Chattanooga by agreeing to exclude them from any future bargaining unit. Organizing these workers, bringing them into the union and demanding full pay and benefits, is crucial to any serious attempt at unionization. Management at other Southern (and also some Northern) factories like the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, has been replacing many full-time positions with temporary jobs. Pointing to the impact of the Chattanooga defeat on workers at the Smyrna Nissan plant, a 15 February Washington Post article observed: “The UAW lost a vote there in 2001, and while it still has organizers on the ground in Smyrna, workers will look to Chattanooga and wonder why so many thought the union was a bad idea.”
The anti-union forces in Chattanooga blamed the union for the devastated condition of Detroit, the former Motor City. But it was the auto bosses, with the complicity of the pro-capitalist union tops, who turned Detroit—an overwhelmingly black city that was once a UAW stronghold—into a bankrupt industrial wasteland at the cost of tens of thousands of decent-paying union jobs. The standard of living that auto workers in Detroit and elsewhere were able to enjoy for a couple of decades after World War II—when U.S. imperialism was economically dominant relative to its Japanese and German rivals—was made possible by the fierce class struggles that built the UAW and made it a powerhouse of organized labor. The seminal event was the 1936-37 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, a watershed in the class battles that gave rise to the CIO industrial unions. The Flint sitdown was preceded by a courageous strike at the Fisher Body plant in Atlanta, in which workers occupied the plant in November 1936 and maintained impassable picket lines for three months. In 1937, the UAW won national recognition.
Today, the union tops point to the panoply of the capitalists’ anti-union laws to justify diverting workers into futile lobbying of the Democrats instead of waging hard class struggle. But there were anti-union laws in the 1930s, too. Union militants were arrested and physically attacked by cops, National Guard and private strikebreakers. But these were the kind of battles out of which the industrial unions were forged. To revive the labor movement today will take nothing less than a return to the same militant methods that built the unions in the first place.
Break with the Democrats!
The Chattanooga VW plant is one of the newest of the so-called transplants: foreign-owned auto factories in the U.S., mostly non-union shops in the South. This trend took off after production started at the Marysville, Ohio, Honda factory in 1982 and the Smyrna Nissan plant a year later. Helping spur the growth of the transplants was the “buy American” protectionism of the UAW bureaucracy during the 1970s and 1980s. To avoid trade restrictions, Japanese and later German automakers relocated some production to the U.S. In turn, the UAW officialdom, whose protectionist tirades tied the union to the interests of the American exploiters, was incapable of waging the necessary struggle to unionize the transplants. Instead, Solidarity House agreed to concession after concession at the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) so that the bosses could “stay competitive” with the foreign-owned factories.
Decades of class collaboration culminated in the UAW leadership’s support to the 2009 bailout of the auto bosses by the Obama administration. The UAW tops accepted plant closures and massive wage and benefit cuts along with a six-year no-strike pledge in the name of saving some jobs. Between 2005 and 2013 foreign automakers opened seven plants, while the Big Three closed 21! From a peak in the 1960s of 1.6 million members, the UAW has been reduced to well under 500,000, and that includes tens of thousands who work in casinos and higher education. A measure of these setbacks is that starting pay at UAW-organized plants is as low as $15 per hour. And now even Michigan, long a center of union power, has become a “right to work” state.
Current UAW president Bob King played a key role alongside his predecessor Ron Gettelfinger in foisting the bailout on union members. King had hoped to burnish his legacy by organizing at least one foreign-owned assembly line in the South before retiring in June. UAW officials were already applying the same losing strategy they used in Chattanooga to a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, where they hoped the parent company Daimler might accept a union if it came with a works council. Daimler now has little reason to play ball with King & Co.
A few years ago, the union officialdom placed great hopes on pressuring the Democrats to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have provided for union recognition when a majority of employees at a workplace signed union authorization cards. While the union bureaucrats saw the EFCA as another substitute for labor struggle, we supported this measure because it would ease the road to union recognition. Had it been enacted, the UAW would have been recognized at the Chattanooga plant last September. When he was U.S. Senator and the EFCA had no chance of passage, Barack Obama backed the bill. Once in the Oval Office, where he landed in no small part due to the huge financial and organizational support of the labor bureaucracy, Obama and the Democrats let the EFCA die. In this, Obama was simply doing his job as CEO of American capitalism.
The trade-union bureaucracy’s fealty to the Democratic Party, which no less than the openly labor-hating Republicans is a party of capital, is the political corollary of its “partnership” with the corporations. The working class can follow one of two paths. There is the bureaucracy’s acquiescence to what is possible under capitalism, which has led to disaster. Or there is the revolutionary strategy proposed by us Marxists. In the course of sharp class struggles and through patient education on the nature of capitalist society, the working class will become imbued with the consciousness of its own historic interests as a class fighting for itself and for all the oppressed. Such consciousness requires a political expression. That means breaking labor’s chains to the Democrats and forging a class-struggle workers party, whose purpose is not only to improve the present conditions of the working class but to do away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery.