Organizing Auto in the South

Dianne Feeley

Posted May 21, 2024

Source: UAW

The overwhelming vote of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) was a stunning victory. VW workers ignored the advice of seven Southern governors who claimed a vote for the UAW would threaten the workers’ jobs and “the values we live by.” Fully 83% of all eligible workers voted, with 73% voting yes. The final count was 2,628 for, with 985 against. Two previous plant-wide organizing drives — in 2014 and again in 2019 — ended in failure, although narrowly.

In mid-May, more than 5,000 workers at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, lost the vote to be represented by the UAW by 44-56% (2,045-2652). In the last days before the vote, pressure from rightwing politicians continued to build while inside the plants the company excelerated its anti-union campaign. These turned to be able to overcome three positive models: the UAW’s highly successful 2023 strike at the Big Three, the unionization drive at Volkswagen, and the 11th-hour agreement between Daimler Truck and the UAW in North Carolina. There, more than 7,000 UAW workers across four truck and bus plants just approved — by 94.5% — a contract that eliminated wage differentials, secured a 25% wage hike with a built-in cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), and maintained health care benefits.

For its part, the UAW has committed $40 million to organize 13 non-unionized auto plants, most of which are foreign-owned and located in the Southern states most hostile to unionization. If successful, the drive would double the number of UAW autoworkers.

Most commentators have noted that the UAW’s “Stand Up Strike” used innovative methods to force Ford, General Motors and Stellantis to pony up far more than they intended. For the first time, it struck all three simultaneously, but chose on a weekly basis which plants to add to the strike. This kept companies guessing about which of their plants would be struck next and forced the companies to compete with each other to meet UAW demands. Weekly videos provided union members with information about the ongoing negotiations and announced the new targets.

Unlike some other unions, the UAW has a long tradition of striking, but particularly since the concessions of the early ‘80s those strikes often led to more concessionary contracts. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, as the industry restructured, companies demanded the union sign on to various schemes to intensify work. These included lean production, team concept, tightening up on absences, as well as plant closures and selling off many Big Three parts plants.

Over the years, various opposition caucuses opposed these concessions and fought for a more democratic union. When one of the most successful, New Directions, won local contracts without concessions, the bureaucracy, known as the Administration Caucus, destroyed it, asserting that concessions were necessary to keep plants open.

The economic crisis of 2008 provided the companies an opportunity for another round of concessions. With Chrysler and GM’s federal bailout, the government demanded that UAW workers “sacrifice” to maintain their jobs by suspending their right to strike. In fact, the Big Three also suspended COLA — the main mechanism that boosts wages. The UAW worked with management to develop a tiered system that condemned the next generation to reduced wages and fewer benefits. They also opened the door to what became “permanent” temporary workers.

Through distributing a sanitized “highlights” version of the contracts and promising that when good times returned the negotiating team would be able to reverse what was being given up, the bureaucracy convinced a reluctant majority to vote yes. They drowned out the dissident voices until the reality of corruption was revealed in 2019. Sixteen officials and a couple of corporate executives were convicted of bribes and kickbacks, including the then current and past UAW International President. Partying at expensive hotels and smoking $1,000 cigars, officials stole at least $3.5 million of the membership’s money.

As a result, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which had been campaigning for one person, one vote to elect top officers, convinced the federally appointed monitor to call for a membership referendum. Disgust over corruption put the fight to directly elect top officials over the top, and the subsequent election weakened the AC’s hold on the International Executive Board. The new leadership knew that winning a decent contract meant developing a strategy to unleash the power of the membership in its 2023 contract negotiations. About the only preparation the previous leadership carried out was printing up picket signs and calling on locals to set up strike duty. Then when negotiations began, that leadership maintained they could not divulge the state of the negotiations.

Key to begin the process of reversing years of concessions, the new leadership launched a social media campaign to reach the membership. In short weekly videos President Shawn Fain revealed the extent of corporate profits, particularly focusing on CEO perks. He then summarized the major demands, including a 40% wage increase, ending tierization, restoring COLA and increasing pensions for retirees. The new UAW leadership borrowed “practice picketing,” rallies, and red-shirt days that the Teamsters were using for their strike mobilization.

Along with the weekly Facebook updates, the union put together a series of videos where workers told their stories. This was highly effective in highlighting how “ordinary” members struggled to build better lives for themselves. Along with videos of rallies and practice pickets, these videos established a sense of community. Fain began the updates with announcements about UAW members outside of the Big Three also involved in negotiations and strikes. He wove into his chats the story of his grandparents leaving the South and coming North to find work during the depression. Fain pointed out that when he saw photos of immigrants on the U.S. border, it reminded him of his grandparents’ move North. In contrast to Trump’s demonization of immigrants as poisoning America, he saw them like his family.

In talking about the inequality that has come to dominate today’s America, Fain called on members:

Let’s stand up for ourselves, and for the working class. Let’s stand up for future generations. Let’s stand up for economic and social justice. Ler’s stand up and once again make history together.

That is, as important as the strike would become, the union’s task was much larger. While the 45-day strike did not win all of the demands, it was a dramatic step forward, resulting in a 25% wage increase, restoration of COLA, a small yearly increase for retirees, and an end to two-tier wages. It also opened the door to UAW representation at joint-venture battery plants not yet even built. As in all negotiations, there were demands left on the table, particularly reduction of the work week (“32 for 40”), and extension of equal benefits for second- and third-tier workers. However, given years of concessions and a much-reduced work force of only 150,000 autoworkers, the contract becomes a benchmark for the two-fold task ahead. Not only must those gains be realized in struggles at the workplace, but it provided an opportunity to organize the non-union auto assembly workers at a bakers’ dozen foreign-owned plants as well as at Rivian and Tesla.

As they saw the strike unfold, non-union workers flooded the UAW with requests to join the more militant and democratic union the UAW was becoming. Even before the three national contracts were signed, the new UAW developed a three-part organizing goal. Workers at a particular plant should self-organize and work toward establishing a base of 30% signing union authorization cards. While continuing to sign up the majority, they should then work with the UAW to publicize their campaign. Once activists have cards signed by 50% of the work force, the UAW organizing staff would assist in building community support, including mass meetings. At 70%, the UAW would file for recognition or seek an election supervised through the National Labor Relations Board. (Several of the Southern “right-to-work” states rule out company recognition of the union, so an election must be called. This then allows the NLRB to move forward or sit on the request.)

These clear goals encourage workers to figure out what are the most effective ways to discuss with co-workers. In the past, UAW organizers stressed home visits and the need to be careful, almost underground, when talking to workers in and around the plant. But being secretive sends the wrong message. While labor law provides only minimal protection to those organizing at work, an aggressive strategy is necessary to counter the company’s attempts to intimidate. The message was that to form a union, start acting like one. This will encourage and inspire other workers.

The Campaign at Volkswagen

Although the UAW encouraged workers organizing at several plants, it was the Volkswagen workers who were first out of the starting gate. Even when straight jacketed by secrecy, they had almost managed to win UAW representation. In 2014 a smaller work force voted 712 yeses to 626 noes; in 2019 the vote was 833 to 776. Although after the loss in 2019 some workers were discouraged, many felt the new UAW’s strategy could result in a win. They were well aware of the carrot-and-stick methods their employer would use against them. They were also keenly aware of the role politicians would play.

Although the previous UAW leadership had courted state and local politicians to remain neutral, the company set up a captive audience meeting where the governor would advise them to vote no. During the 2019 campaign, when Tennessee Governor Bill Lee — a Republican whose family owns a construction business with an annual revenue of over $220 million — warned workers not to risk their future by voting for UAW representation, some workers booed. That led others to conclude union supporters went too far and they ended up voting no.

Another factor to consider was the experience of the skilled trades workers, who voted to establish their own UAW bargaining unit in between the two plant-wide drives. But they had been thwarted by the company, who hired a union-busting law firm, Littler Mendelson, to litigate against their victory. Unable to negotiate a contract with VW, the UAW was forced to “abandon” the unit in order to re-launch a plant-wide recognition vote in 2019.

The volunteer organizing committee concluded that, faced with an aggressive management, they needed to move swiftly and be laser-focused. Within two weeks they reached the 30% target; within two months 50% of the workforce had signed up. As they reached the first goal, Fain and a delegation of community and faith leaders delivered a letter calling on Volkswagen management to end its union busting. Around the same time, workers and VW received a letter from the European and Global Works Council promising “severe consequences” for Volkswagen if they failed to be neutral in the upcoming vote. While that may be a relatively minor problem for a company that increased its profits 37% over the last three years, the letter of solidarity was important to the activists.

As stories about VW workers’ volunteer organizing committee have come out, it’s clear it was effective because it was diverse. It included workers from different job classifications, areas of the plant, shifts and backgrounds. They also played different roles, with some more visible as they passed out cards in the parking lot or break rooms. Others functioned more as “eyes and ears,” providing important feedback. Campaigners drew the conclusion that they should keep the focus on their working conditions, not on being drawn into partisan politics that could open the door to right-wing arguments against the UAW.

UAW activists were well prepared for the anti-union rhetoric Volkswagen and politicians would use. They had heard it all before, so they elaborated effective answers:

1. If the UAW wins representation, Volkswagen will close the plant.

Once the UAW won its 2023 Big Three contract, the company announced an 11% wage increase. This was an obvious attempt to cut off worker organizing. VW had just invested $800 million in the plant and increased production by 9%, according to Automotive News. While this threat worked in the past, the bluff didn’t resonate this time around. Everyone talked about VW’s two-minute ad unveiled at the recent Super Bowl. Rumor has it that the company dropped $28 million in celebrating its 75th anniversary in the United States. They concluded VW was not about to pick up and leave.

2. Volkswagen closed and dismantled its first U.S. plant because of the problems it had with the UAW-represented work force. Why wouldn’t it do that in Chattanooga?

Volkswagen was the first foreign-owned company to operate a U.S. facility; it was also a first for the UAW to represent the workforce of a foreign-owned automaker. Volkswagen bought a closed Chrysler plant in New Stanton, Pennsylvania and planned to open a second site in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The New Stanton plant (1978-88) produced a compact car, the Rabbit, an Americanized version of the Golf, selling more than 1.1 million. But for several economic reasons, the car didn’t sell in sufficient numbers. Within a few years there were 35 other compacts on the U.S. market, many selling at a lower price. Given Volkswagen’s agreement with the German union that they could not use the U.S. facility to reduce German car production, the company shut the facility and sold its equipment.

(For the record, it’s also true that the work force demanded equal pay with GM workers and carried out six wildcats within the first couple of years with the slogan “No money, no bunny.” The company avoided hiring people from Pittsburgh, 35 miles away, and seemed to prefer hiring those with the longest unemployment. Black workers encountered such sharp racial discrimination that they formed a Black caucus of both assembly workers and management. Litigation continued after the plant closed, and eventually VW agreed to pay $670,000 to 800 Black workers who filed discrimination charges. This ranged from $200 for those who never made it off the 90-day probation period to $70,000 for a Black supervisor who was harassed. The company’s top Black executive had committed suicide.)

3. The company prepared “Talking Points” that supervisors read to the workers.

The company maintained that UAW representation would harm the relationship between management and workers. The UAW would be an outside force that would stand between them, stifling mediation over issues. But labeling the UAW as an outside force seemed like a sick joke, given unmet promises for improving health and safety.

4. Politicians warned workers against the UAW. Governor Lee once again spoke in opposition at an in-plant meeting. The National Right-to-Work Committee also sent out hundreds of messages to VW workers.

Outside pressure had less impact this time around. Workers questioned just what “values” were lost, if they voted to join the UAW. After all, not far away, GM workers at the Spring Hill plant are represented by the UAW, as is GM’s most profitable plant in Arlington, Texas and Ford’s plants in Kentucky. Furthermore, every other Volkswagen plant in the world has a unionized workforce.

Some workers wondered whether they would be able to get their money’s worth from the monthly union dues. But UAW activists replied that evaluating the UAW isn’t a cost-benefit analysis like deciding on insurance coverage. Joining the UAW is building a force to make the changes needed, beginning with everyday issues.

The volunteer organizing committee drew lessons from past attempts and harnessed the knowledge of those who had been part of a union at other workplaces. They leafleted in the parking lot and in break rooms, they talked about on-the-job issues and refuted points politicians, with no knowledge of their problems, made. One of the most important contributions UAW staff provided was producing short videos. These featured statements by a diverse group of workers, many with Southern accents. It demonstrated that this was a home-grown movement.

As the election approached, 300 coworkers volunteered to be poll watchers. That level of participation made everyone confident of their win. And now that the NLRB has certified the election, Volkswagen is legally bound to begin bargaining. But having been unable to prevent its workforce from becoming a UAW local, will the company agree to a contract that matches the Big Three or throw up roadblocks?

What Companies Have Learned, What Workers Are Facing

Foreign-owned companies, led by Volkswagen but soon followed by Toyota, quickly absorbed lessons on how to set up U.S. facilities. First, they were courted by many states, who offered them tax incentives and grants. Second, they learned to build their plants in more rural areas where there were fewer work opportunities after previous industries had shut down. Third, they learned how to avoid hiring people with union backgrounds and came to rely more and more on temporary agencies for staffing. Paying wages that were higher than businesses in the surrounding area, the companies sometimes matched the wages of UAW plants but their benefits rarely did. They also watched the concessions the UAW gave to the Big Three and made sure to adjust accordingly. Most importantly, workplace health and safety were significantly poorer — partly because state regulations were weaker.

Just as these foreign-owned companies learned new business practices, the Big Three and the parts plants they spun off in the ‘90s picked up tips from these newbies. In reality, they learned from each other. Breaking the concessionary lock at the Big Three opened the door to ending the inequalities baked into the non-union plants.

After the Volkswagen workers’ win, the spotlight turned to the Mercedes-Benz workers. They did not have the experience of “almost wins” that VW workers had — two previous attempts had quickly fizzled. They did get a raise right after the 2023 UAW strike and an end to two-tier wages, regarding it as the “UAW bump.” Still stretched to the breaking point with 12-hour days, Mercedes workers faced a combination of the company’s carrot-and-stick approach.

The company’s intimidation tactics included disciplining and even firing union activists, captive-audience meetings and a barrage of anti-union messages over in-plant monitors, as well as mailings and text messages. What turned out to be the company’s most effective and dramatic action was the firing of its CEO, replacing him with one who pledged to work to make needed improvements. Just days before the vote, Baptist minister Matthew Wilson’s video message urged workers to give CEO Federico Pablo Kochlowski a chance. He then toured the facility with the plant manager. According to the interviews with workers this may have been the most decisive tactic that turned “yes” into “no” votes.

For her part, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivry boldly claimed that the “Alabama model” is under attack by the “out of state special interest” UAW; she will do all in her power to prevent that from happening. Her statement pointed out that the state is also home to Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Mazda and various supplier plants. Ivry sees that Alabama has become a national leader in auto manufacturing, annually producing 1.3 million cars, SUVs and trucks. This is the result of employers who are “great” and workers who are hard-working. Apparently hard-working people have no need to make their own decisions.

Whichever way the vote at Mercedes-Benz went, Ivry was prepared to block the UAW’s way. For its part, the UAW has filed charges against the company with the NLRB for their interference in the election and with the German government over Mercedes- Benz’s violation of the recently passed Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains. The government announced that the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control has begun a formal investigation.

Of course, a Trump win in November could curtail the union’s legal options. Meanwhile, the UAW is encouraging all unions to align their contract expiration date to May 1, 2028. That goal suggests the potential for a renewed labor movement calling a strike across industries. The battle lines have been drawn.

Note: Many thanks to Labor Notes reporter Luis Felix Leon for his well-researched articles.


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