Letter from the US: Autoworkers union lose key battle in the South

Chattanooga assembly line. The United Autoworkers Union lost a vote to unionise a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

In a closely-watched election, the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) tried to break into the anti-union South to organise a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The union lost the February election among the plant’s 1550 production workers. There were 626 votes in favor and 712 against.

The negative vote was something of a surprise, because Volkswagen management did not threaten workers’ jobs if they voted yes, and was officially neutral. Generally, bosses intimidate workers and pay for a barrage of anti-union advertising to stop workers voting in favour of unionising.

There has been much discussion in the labour and left press on why the union lost.

Much of this discussion has centered on outside interference by Republican politicians and extreme right groups who poured money into the anti-union campaign. This was undoubtedly a factor.

Immediately after the election results, UAW President Bob King said: “We are obviously disappointed. We’re also outraged by the outside interference in this election.”

He was referring to public statements by the Republican governor, Republican state legislative majority leader, and US Senator from Tennessee Bob Corker suggesting that if the workers voted for the union, the state would cut subsidies to the factory. Volkswagen, it was suggested, would move production of its new SUV elsewhere.

There were other factors, such as lower-level management violating the “neutrality” agreement, and mobilising white-collar workers to campaign for a “No” vote.

UAW leaders

But I want to zero in on the failures of top UAW leaders as a main reason for the defeat. This was brought home to me when I saw a nationally televised debate between a UAW representative and a far-right opponent of unions before the workers voted.

I was startled when the right-winger brought up the fact that UAW leaders were in bed with the company. Class struggle militants in the UAW have made this observation over the past decades, but I was taken aback to hear it from the mouths of the right.

Of course the anti-union spokesman was being cynical he is against all unions. But, according to an article by Neil Young in the pro-union In These Times who spoke with many workers before and after the vote, this argument had weight among the workers.

Indeed, in the “neutrality” agreement with Volkswagen, the UAW agreed not to bargain for wages above what was offered by Volkswagen competitors in the US.

The UAW and Volkswagen agreed to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that [Volkswagen] enjoys relative to its competitors”.

This agreement was made by the UAW tops the workers had no say in it. This rankled them, Young reported.

UAW President Bob King defended this class-collaborationist position after the election: “Our philosophy is, we want to work in partnership with companies to succeed. Nobody has more at stake in the long-term success of the company than the workers on the shop floor, both blue and white collar.
“With every company that we work with, we’re concerned about competitiveness.”

Young quoted workers who were repelled by the huge concessions the UAW has given to the Big Three General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

In a series of contract negotiations in the 1990s and 2000s, the UAW agreed to two-tier levels of wages. New workers hired get just under US$16 an hour and go up gradually. However, wages stay well below the roughly $28 an hour that was the previous norm.

Over time, the “new hires” wage becomes the prevailing wage.

Also, for new hires, retiree medical protection plans and defined benefit pension plans, which were the norm for UAW members, have been gutted. Financial responsibility for the healthcare system for all retirees was shifted from the company to the union.

What King pledged to protect for Volkswagen was these concessions. A union that negotiates away previous gains to help the companies “stay competitive” is not exactly an inspiration for workers to join.

Campaign limits

Also, the “neutrality” agreement the UAW signed with Volkswagen barred the union from making any “negative” comments about the company. It stopped the union from holding one-on-one meetings with workers at their homes, a common practice in union organising drives.

Young reported: “Also, pro-union community activists, who spoke with In These Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of hurting their relationships with the UAW, spoke of the difficulties in getting the UAW to help them engage the broader Chattanooga community.

“Many activists I spoke with during my two trips to Chattanooga said that when they saw the UAW being continually blasted on local talk radio, newspapers and billboards, they wanted to get involved to help build community support.

However, they say that the UAW was lukewarm in partnering with them. Indeed, when I attended a forum in December organized by Chattanooga for Workers, a community group designed to build local support for the organizing drive, more than 150 community activists attended many from different area unions but I encountered only three UAW members

“‘There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you,’ said one Chattanooga community organizer, who preferred to remain anonymous. ‘Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.’”

These are not only the failures of the hardened bureaucracy that rules the UAW, but labour movement leaders as a whole going back decades.

The South

When the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955, there was much fanfare about using the combined strength of the new AFL-CIO to unionise the South.

But this effort never got off the ground. The main reason was that to unionise workers in the apartheid South, a fight was needed against the systematic oppression of African Americans known as “Jim Crow”.

This was needed to organise Black workers as well as fight against the prejudices of white workers instilled by the Southern “Dixiecrat” ruling class with anti-union as well as anti-Black views. Unions and the fight for Black rights were tied together as “communist plots”.

In short, the AFL-CIO would have had to lead a social fight against Jim Crow, against anti-communism, and for what unionism would mean in advancing the interests of all workers, Black and white.

But the AFL-CIO bureaucracy was complicit in the anti-communist witch-hunt, driving socialists of all types as well as union militants out of the labor movement. The union’s top officials also worked hand and glove with the CIA against left-wing unions around the world.

The AFL-CIO bureaucracy is also tied to the Democratic Party, which before the civil rights upsurge relied on its racist Dixiecrat wing in the South. The AFL-CIO tops had no stomach to take on any of these obstacles to unionising the South, and in fact did nothing.

With the new upsurge in the Black movement in the South marked by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, the year after the AFL-CIO merger, the new federation failed to get behind it.

In the subsequent explosion of the Black liberation movement across the country, and the rise of the anti-war and youth radicalisation in “the '60s”, the AFL-CIO failed to spearhead these movements, which it could have done. It lagged far behind this radicalisation, when it was not outright hostile.

In the years since, the South has been a tough nut to crack, including for the UAW. In the past two decades, many new auto plants, especially foreign owned, such as Toyota, Honda, and Volkswagen, have been built in the South without being unionised.


The UAW today is about half the size it once was. A common misconception is that this is because of US auto companies moving overseas. But the number of autoworkers in the US is actually about the same as it once was.

One factor has been the restructuring of the auto industry. Parts formerly made in the big plants have been outsourced to plants in the US, as well as other countries. These are often non-union small parts suppliers used to feed the assembly plants.

A main reason for the drop in UAW membership is the failure of the union to organise the parts plants and the Southern factories.

The sorry performance of UAW leaders in this organising effort underscores the need to rebuild the labour movement on a class-struggle, social unionism, and independent political basis. A key element must be union democracy, where the ranks are mobilised in their own interests.

The only lesson Bob King has drawn, however, is to redouble efforts to support the capitalist Democrats in elections.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]