Letters: Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers
A Win Can Take Years
I agree with many of the conclusions in Chris Brooks’ article, “Why the UAW Lost Again at Volkswagen in Chattanooga” (Labor Notes July 2019). However, it is a little disingenuous to point to the Smithfield campaign as an example of successful large-scale organizing in the South without mentioning that a win there took 16 years and three elections! The 2016 documentary Union Time directed by Matthew Barr gives an excellent overview of the lengthy campaign.
UAW Is Not Enticing
As a fourth-generation United Auto Workers guy and the first to quit to go into the steel mills I’ve got to be honest: the UAW has given back EVERYTHING, so there’s nothing to entice the Southern auto workers. UAW workers start out at $17 an hour—half of the $30 an hour that was given in 2008. Nonunion plants compete with union plants now. It’s sad. In 2015 the “pitch” was, the South has been using temps for an extended amount of time. If I had stayed at GM, tomorrow would be my four-year anniversary as a “temp.” The UAW has the power and money to step up their game before it’s too late. How many more plant closures before they are a “used to be”?
Fairview Heights, Illinois
Steelworkers Local 1899
Former member UAW Local 2250
Chris Brooks’ article on the UAW’s loss, in addition to its stunning arrogance, is full of inaccuracies. If we are to learn and up our game as organizers, it should be based on facts. It is not clear who he talked to, but the claims he makes are an insult to the brave men and women of the organizing committee who stood strong through nine weeks of threats and intimidation.
His claim that the campaign did not inoculate against VW’s tactics is just plain wrong. Knowing that VW had retained Littler Mendelson for the 2015 skilled-trades vote, workers were told what to expect based on Littler’s track record. The organizing committee was ready, and when supervisors launched their attack at pre-shift briefings, many workers—prohibited from leaving—turned their backs or challenged the claims being made. After a couple weeks of protest, Littler was driven out of the plant and supervisors were forced to travel to a local hotel to get their union-busting instructions.
Brooks’ characterization of VW’s campaign as “run-of-the-mill” and “standard fare” is perhaps understandable for someone who writes from a safe remove. These tactics are nevertheless intimidating to many workers who worry about a possible threat to their livelihood. That some workers were still frightened by VW’s threats, despite being warned they were coming, is not unusual, as most organizers know.
There are numerous other inaccuracies, such as his claim that the union didn’t take credit for post-petition workplace improvements.
But while Brooks is liberal with his criticisms of the union’s effort, he gives short shrift to the National Labor Relations Board’s apparent collaboration with VW’s campaign, which held up the election for nine weeks, even granting VW a stay in the proceedings to give the company additional time to intimidate workers.
He makes no mention of “Southern Momentum,” led by the former H.R. attorney for the plant, which did VW’s bidding in attacking in-plant leaders of the organizing drive. The group spent over a quarter-million dollars on anti-UAW media yet refused to disclose the source of its funding. No apology should be necessary that the union also had an aggressive media presence, and it was appreciated by workers.
The author worked on the UAW organizing drives at the Chattanooga VW factory in 2014, 2015, and 2019, and was previously AFSCME’s national organizing director.
Chris Brooks responds:
Over the past four months I published 17 articles—some for outlets like The Intercept and The Nation, but most for Labor Notes—on the UAW’s organizing drive at Volkswagen. Our reporting exposed Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s captive-audience meeting in the plant as well as the myriad anti-union tactics VW used on the shop floor to intimidate and cajole workers into voting no.
I interviewed dozens of pro-union workers. From those conversations it was obvious that if VW workers lived in a vacuum—free from the pressures put on them by the boss, astroturf groups, and state politicians—they would have voted for the union. But that is not the world we live in.
The simple fact is that the UAW had no serious in-plant campaign to put a supermajority of workers into motion to fight for and win their union. Organizing committee members participated in small actions—flyering in front of the plant, wearing UAW shirts or stickers—but there was no systematic effort to involve large numbers of pro-union workers in these activities.
The union didn’t even do turnout for the only pro-union community rally organized in the weeks leading up to the vote. There was not a single in-plant petition.
Nevertheless, some workers took it on themselves to courageously challenge the boss—such as by wearing temporary UAW tattoos when supervisors ordered them to remove pro-UAW stickers from their uniforms. However, those actions were small and self-organized, not part of a larger plan.
The organizing committee was small, about 60 people out of an hourly workforce of 1,700. Any inoculation efforts were insufficient or ineffective. Only a couple of union activists did home visits in the lead-up to the vote. That job was left almost exclusively to the dozens of paid staff and out-of-state consultants, such as Schmitz, brought in by the UAW. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s no substitute for a high-participation campaign driven by the rank and file.
In the end, the union’s assessments of who was going to vote yes didn’t hold up. A better strategy would have been to follow an old union maxim: you win a union by acting like one.
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