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Lessons from the UAW’s defeat at Volkswagen

Commentary by Dustin Ponder |
February 19, 2014
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The recent defeat of the UAW at the Chattanooga, Tennessee Volkswagen plant marked a serious setback for the working class, the auto-workers of the Tennessee plant, as well as hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file autoworkers within in the UAW. Workers at the plant voted against representation by a narrow margin of 712 to 626. A victory for labor would have marked the unionization of the first foreign auto plant in the U.S. and one of only a handful of unionized plants in the South. As the growth and survival of the U.S. labor movement in general, and the UAW in particular, depends in part on unionizing the largely unorganized South, union militants and rank-and-file activists need to draw key lessons from this defeat and augment our tactics and strategies.

The factors of defeat

Volkswagen, a company where the German autoworkers union sits on the board of directors, signed a neutrality agreement with the UAW, claiming they wanted to implement a ‘German-style’ works council where workers and management could collaborate on various workplace issues. This led many media pundits and union supporters to expect a slam dunk victory for the UAW.

But let’s be clear: unfavorable conditions for labor still reigned in Tennessee. The jobs at Volkswagen pay relatively well in the low-wage South. Racism and national oppression of black people also served as a basis for anti-union propaganda. Automakers in the South have used slogans such as “This is not Detroit,” exploiting racism and attempting to divide white and Black workers.

A major factor put forward by the UAW leadership blamed right-wing politicians and special interest groups for the loss. As UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel, the man in charge of the union’s Southern organizing said, “Unfortunately, politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that that would grow jobs in Tennessee.”

While we should not underestimate the effects of the reactionary Senator Bob Corker threatening job losses in front of plant workers, it seemed mild compared to the outright firings, intimidation and attack on workers’ rights common to most labor organizing campaigns.

Perhaps then the deciding factor layed with the UAW’s class collaborationist approach. UAW President Bob King put forward its perspective to the Washington Post: “Our philosophy is, we want to work in partnership with companies to succeed... With every company that we work with, we're concerned about competitiveness. We work together with companies to have the highest quality, the highest productivity, the best health and safety, the best ergonomics, and we are showing that companies that succeed by this cooperation can have higher wages and benefits because of the joint success.”

Let’s look at this approach in practice. In the neutrality agreement, the UAW agreed, without the consent of the rank and file at the facility, that if they won bargaining rights, any future negotiations would be guided by considerations such as “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that Volkswagen enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America;” i.e. keeping ‘competitive’ wages and benefit compensation in comparison to the Big Three.

The UAW also agreed that it is “committed to the delegation to the Works Council of certain duties, responsibilities and functions that are traditionally the subject of collective bargaining.” The details of this ‘works council’ would be left to bargaining in the first contract. This means surrendering functions of the union to an entity half comprised of management. To make matters worse, the union also agreed to a strict no-strike clause during first contract negotiations that would bar the workers from implementing basically every effective tactic to pressure their employer during the critical negotiations of that first contract, including picketing, boycotting or slowdown actions. The UAW also surrendered their right to house visits with plant employees, a critical organizing tool in any labor drive.

The UAW leadership’s class-collaborationist strategy opened the door for anti-union groups such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation to spread to make inroads at the plant. A group of managers and backward workers to created a “No 2 UAW” website and social media presence. The backward forces opposed to the UAW’s effort publicized and organized around the UAW’s collaborationist approach to successfully defeat the drive. Hourly worker Mike Burton, who created the No 2 UAW website was quoted by In These Times journalist Mike Elk as saying “I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW,” and that “There are great unions out there, and we just weren’t offered any of them.” Elk’s article details the recent history of sell-out contracts the UAW negotiated with the big three. These contracts included two-tier wage systems that lock in low pay for new hires doing the same work.

In a racist and ruthlessly anti-worker South (and U.S. for that matter), can the tactics and strategies of the UAW leadership deliver victory? After decades of vicious attacks and attempts to destroy organized labor, should our strategy now include shaking hands and agreeing with the boss? Can agreeing to keep wages and benefits lower than competitors and promising to push worker’s productivity ever higher for the same compensation save the union movement? The answer is all too clear to rank-and-file workers across the country.

Militant union members and the rank and file must oppose accepting the company’s line of ‘competitiveness.’ Accepting ‘competitiveness’ means accepting a race to lower wages and rewarding the company that extracts the most profit at the expense of their work force, and undercutting the highest wage scales and standards in that industry.

Capitalists make their profits by exploiting workers. They take part of the value that their workers’ labor produces as profit for themselves. The interests of the capitalists will always conflict with those of their workers because every penny they squeeze out of us, means one more in their pocket. Any union that pledges themselves to cooperation, by definition, must betray those they claim to represent. In such a tight vote, there seems little doubt that Bob King’s class collaborationist snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Just look at the current UAW’s record, and compare it to the UAW of old which implemented a “fight the bosses” strategy to win substantial improvements in the lives of unionized autoworkers. A study of the UAW’s history over the past 60 years makes clear that cooperation means the erosion and long-term destruction of unions. For more on this, read Michael D. Yate’s Monthly Review article “Who Will Lead the U.S. Working Class.”

Fight the boss, fight for class struggle unionism

What type of unionism should we propose in the place of this ‘cooperate with management’ unionism? One which embraces industry wide organizing. This means fighting for industry standards like national master agreements and pattern bargaining agreements to take wages out of competition. To counteract ‘undercutting’ and ‘competition’ we must push for unified standards, contracts and compensation.

From a strategic stand point, we need a unionism which recognizes that the bosses, the corporations and the 1% billionaires who own them are the enemies of the workers. We need a unionism that understands that the rank-and-file workers are the union. The workers themselves should run their unions, not a bunch of career bureaucrats with $100,000 salaries.

We need a unionism willing to revive the strike weapon. Historically, production-stopping strikes played a key role in the CIO organizing millions of workers and winning real wage and benefit increases from the 1930s through the 1950s. The strike and other militant production-stopping tactics awaken workers to their collective power and demonstrate in practice that they possess the real power in the workplace.

To implement these strategies seriously, we need a unionism willing to spend real money on industry-wide organizing campaigns and conducting real strikes instead of donating millions to sellout 1% politicians from both parties.

We must embrace militant, class struggle unionism. We must look to the militant movement embodied by the Chicago Teachers strike and by the spirit of the “Vote No” movement at UPS. This is the unionism of the UAW of the 1930s, led by militants, socialists and communists who conducted the Flint sit-down strikes, where the rank and file led the union and put forward militant demands even by today’s standards. The old UAW implemented tactics that defied the law, and that kept scabs from walking through the factory gates when the bosses and their crony politicians sent in thugs, police and the National Guard in to break the strike.

The ultimate lesson from Tennessee is that the working class cannot expect our generals to lead us to victory in battle, when their tactics and strategies involve shaking hands with those who would gun us down.

If we want to change the fortune of the labor movement, we must organize and unite the militant fighters in our work places and unions to put them on a fighting basis against the bosses. We must form a left wing in the labor movement that is willing to win local unions, labor councils, state federations, and international unions, over to the side of militant tactics and strategies.