[Marxism] UAW's failure to sway VW workers clouds future

Marv Gandall marvgand2 at gmail.com
Sun Feb 16 10:58:03 MST 2014

The Chattanooga plant vote is a grim illustration of the old labour movement maxim: "The workers don't need a union to go backwards; they can do that by themselves" - the typical outcome in conditions of labour surplus rather than labour shortage. But the VW setback was extraordinary in that, even with the open support of management, the union was unable to overcome the fear of job loss gripping the working class in the developed capitalist economies - MG

UAW's failure to sway VW workers clouds future
By Robert Wright in New York
Financial Times
February 16 2014

In the months leading up to last week’s vote on union recognition at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga factory in Tennessee, officials of the United Auto Workers’ union went out of their way to sound calm and measured. Bob King, the union’s president, regularly spoke approvingly about the company’s commitment to workers’ right and strong business record.

But there was no disguising how nerve-racking the vote was for senior officials, who many observers suspected were concerned about the solidity of its support at the plant.

The ballot was “a matter of life and death” for the union, Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the centre for the study of work, labour and democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Financial Times in October. If the union could not organise workers in such non-unionised, foreign-owned factories – which account for a growing number of jobs in the US car industry – the industry would have effectively a “non-union pay structure”, Prof Lichtenstein said.

The question for Mr King and the UAW is whether, after workers at the Chattanooga plantvoted 53 to 47 per cent against union representation, the union’s role is fated to dwindle.

In the defeat’s immediate aftermath, union officials criticised the interference from outside conservative lobbyists and politicians in the vote. But the longer-term issue for the union may be a practical one: it was unable to persuade workers that they would be better off with union membership than without.

Dennis Williams, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, said after the vote that the union was “outraged” by the interference from politicians and lobby groups but proud of the workers who had been “brave” and stood up to the “tremendous pressure”.

“We hope this will start a larger discussion about workers’ right to organise,” he said.

The ideological aspects of the struggle have certainly been eye-catching. The UAW extolled the virtues of Volkswagen’s continental European-style way of dealing with workers through unions and their representatives on works councils, which make workplace decisions jointly with management. The UAW’s opponents stressed its links to political decisions that were unpopular in the conservative south, such as the Obama administration’s bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and other parts of the domestically-owned auto industry.

The Center for Worker Freedom – funded by Grover Norquist, the anti-tax campaigner – posted adverts near the Chattanooga factory bearing the United Auto Workers’ name with the word “auto” crossed out and replaced with “Obama”. The UAW may yet challenge the ballot results based on complaints about such outsiders’ campaigns.

However, both pro and anti-union workers at the Chattanooga plant consistently stressed practical rather than ideological factors as their reasons to support or oppose unionisation.

In that regard, the critical intervention may have been that by Bob Corker, the junior US senator from Tennessee, who last Wednesday claimed that Volkswagen’s management would allocate badly needed work on a new sport utility vehicle to Chattanooga only if workers rejected unionisation. The company denied its decision on where to build the SUV would depend on the union vote. Indeed, managers at the plant have privately complained VW’s German management might deny the plant the work if it failed to adopt some form of worker representation.

Mr Corker said after Friday’s vote he was “thrilled” for the VW employees.

Mr Corker’s claim had the power to change workers’ minds precisely because work levels at the factory are among the workers’ biggest concerns. The plant builds only the Passat midsize car, for which demand has been declining. Workers at the plant tend to cite the need to win new work for the plant as an issue than pay – which is high for the area – or management behaviour, about which few have specific complaints.

“The threats against the workers were what shifted things,” Mr King said.

However, while specific local factors may have hampered the UAW’s efforts in Chattanooga, many observers believe local factors at other non-unionised auto plants could be still less favourable.

Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book, the car information service, calls the Chattanooga vote a “serious setback” for the union, pointing out that the plant’s management maintained a neutral stance on the issue.

“The UAW’s attempts to organise other non-union plants in the United States are very unlikely to be greeted with as much co-operation from other manufacturers,” he says. “This could mark the end to UAW hopes to gain traction in these non-union southern state plants.”

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