UAW’s Leaders’ Pro-Corporate Approach Crashes in Chattanooga


Volkswagen workers reject UAW in 712 to 626 vote after Republican slanders were not credibly answered by the union

Kai Stein and Stephen Edwards, Retired President AFSCME Local 2858

After a vicious anti-union campaign including blackmailing threats from Republican politicians, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) were defeated at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last Friday (February 14). In a three day election 626 workers voted in favor of the certification of the trade union. 712 voted against. 89 percent of the eligible workforce took part in the ballot, which was overseen by the National Relations Board (NLRB).

The union had hoped to build momentum for organizing drives already in progress at Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz plant Tuscaloosa near Vance, Alabama, and the Nissan plant near Jackson, Mississippi. Instead, this defeat will encourage more Right-wing attacks on unions and union rights.

Right-Wing Slander Against UAW’s Efforts

The misleadingly named “Center for Worker Freedom”, an affiliate of anti-tax operative Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform” has already promised to dog the UAW’s efforts to organize other foreign-owned plants in the south. Norquist’s group bought up every available billboard it could find – 13 in all.

“The various billboards weren’t just to make sure that everyone driving to the plant would see them but also so that everybody in town would see them,” said Norquist. One billboard targeted Barack Obama, linking him to the UAW while others threatened that Chattanooga could become the next Detroit.

In the anti-union campaign, Republican governor Bill Haslam argued that parts suppliers would avoid the region if the factory was unionized.

Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker claimed to have inside information from VW management sources that a new SUV would be produced there, but only if the union was rejected.

Tennessee Republican State Senator Bo Watson condemned Volkswagen for its “neutrality” toward unionization as “unfair, unbalanced, and quite frankly, un-American”. Representing a suburb of Chattanooga in the state house, he threatened that the legislature would withhold further subsidies to VW if the union vote carried, discouraging further expansion of the VW plant.

Again and again, the example of Detroit was used to attack the UAW.

Mike Jarvis, a three-year employee in the plant and part of a group of workers that opposed the UAW told the New York Times: “Look at what happened to the auto manufacturers in Detroit and how they struggled. They all shared one huge factor: the UAW.”

Outside Interference”

“We’re obviously deeply disappointed,” Bob King, the UAW’s president said after the defeat. “We also are outraged by the outside interference in this election. It’s never happened before that a U.S senator, a governor and a leader of the House of Representatives threatened the company and threatened the workers,” King complained.

The slander and anti-union campaign was massive and disgusting. However, this was not unexpected. This was not the first time that an attempt to unionize, especially in the South, failed because of vicious union-busting campaigns.

Because of a neutrality agreement with VW which was obtained with the aid of its German workers’ union, this attempt was seen as easier and a better result was widely expected. No wonder that Bloomberg Businessweek asked cheerfully: “If the UAW couldn’t win this one, what can they win? Volkswagen didn’t even oppose unionization.” VW cooperated with the union and allowed organizers to advertise inside the plant. A “dream world scenario virtually unheard of in the US these days”, commented USA Today.

The Approach of the UAW

Many workers, both North and South, had followed this campaign hoping for a breakthrough in organizing Southern industrial plants. The threat of the South’s lower wages and worse working conditions is constantly used to force through concessions and gut contracts throughout the rest of the USA.

Boeing recently blackmailed its employees in Everett, near Seattle, Washington, to reopen their contract and make massive concessions including no participation in the pension plan for new employees. Under enormous pressure from Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray, both Democrats, and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Machinists’ national leadership, a narrow majority was convinced to agree to these concessions rather than lose the entire plant to the South (see article on

A breakthrough in Chattanooga would have strengthened the fight to overcome union-free zones and take on the misnamed “right to work”, anti-union laws.

However, for many workers in Chattanooga the approach of the UAW appeared more to be about saving the influence of highly paid labor leaders and their apparatus than about workers’ rights and wages.

As In These Times staff writer Mike Elk reported, “many workers who voted against the UAW said they weren’t opposed to unions, but they just didn’t trust the UAW.”

The theme of the organizing drive was summed up on the UAW’s website: “VW and UAW: Putting Collaboration First!”. So the whole idea of unionizing the plant was presented as the union working together with VW to implement German-style “Works Councils.” Every VW plant around the globe outside the US and China is unionized and has a system of “co-determination.”

While works councils can and often do offer a tool for genuine trade unionists to express the demands of workers, VW has perfected them as a tool of co-opting labor and using workers’ representatives to implement management decisions. If not linked to genuine shop floor power, based on active shop stewards and an engaged and involved membership, such structures develop into bureaucratic tools, disempowering the workers.

Such fears existed in Chattanooga and were fed by anti-union groups like the far-Right Mackinaw Center for Public Policy which also, in a coded way, suggested that the workers were going to lose control over their lives to an agreement made over their heads between foreign bosses and those other so-called “outsiders”, the UAW.

The Neutrality Agreement

Instead of taking up such fears through building a lively union, the UAW did the opposite: It signed a neutrality agreement with the VW bosses. The price paid for this “neutrality” (which was systematically violated by front-line supervisors and salaried employees in the plant) the UAW made huge concessions, such as agreeing to make no home visits to talk to workers away from the workplace unless invited to do so by the employee and to hand over some of its future bargaining power to the works council.

Worse yet, the union honored this not only in the letter but in the spirit, spurning the efforts of pro-union community groups to organize support from the ground up. “Community activists said they had a hard time finding ways to coordinate solidarity efforts with the UAW, whose campaign they saw as insular rather than community-based” comments In These Times. “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” (In These Times, February 15).

The far Right, more concerned with scare tactics and less so with staying “on message” has a long record of developing community connections to undermine the rights of workers and the oppressed. As Reuters reported in the aftermath of the vote:”at least five national [conservative] organizations and one grassroots group – all apparently operating independently – mounted a formidable threat to the UAW and helped thwart what many initially viewed as the favorite to win the election.”

The UAW ran a fairly traditional campaign: meeting workers, distributing fliers and running radio ads. Anti-union forces, who were not allowed to campaign at the plant, waged war outside. Throughout Chattanooga, they held town hall meetings, launched anti-UAW websites, wrote numerous op-ed opinion pieces and radio ads, and put up billboards.

“My thinking is workers don’t operate in a vacuum. They operate in a community and when the community realizes how much is at stake for everyone, then that message reaches everyone,” said Matt Patterson, one of the chief architects of the winning anti-union strategy” (

The Right wing used the VW-UAW agreement to make anti-union arguments, turning “neutrality” into its opposite. For example the anti-union website “” posted the agreement itself for downloading, complete with highlighted areas showing that the UAW had agreed in advance to be “guided by … maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that VWGOA [Volkswagen Group of America] enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America, including but not limited to legacy automobile manufacturers.”

Compared to other workers in the South, Chattanooga’s VW workers already enjoy better wages. After the huge concessions of the UAW to the Big Three, the agreement reads not as a promise to fight to improve workers’ wages and working conditions, but the opposite: to limit them to the declining salaries in other parts of the country and in particular to the two-tier wage scales which the UAW has agreed to in contract after concessionary contract. This was also seized on by right-wing campaigners against the union.

Instead of an energetic, rank and file based union drive, the UAW agreed in the “neutrality agreement” to not engage in one-on-one meetings with workers, unless explicitly requested: “The UAW agrees that it shall not approach or seek to speak with Employees who do not approach it.”

Neutrality agreements can be a valuable tool – depending on how they were won. The successful unionization of the world’s largest slaughterhouse in Smithfield, NC in 2009 by the UFCW was towards the end also accompanied by a “neutrality agreement”. However, that was based on active, rank-and-file campaign including deep organizing within the community, a successful boycott, a wildcat strike of 1,000 workers and battles over a paid holiday on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

In contrast, the strategy of “bargaining to organize” has proved damaging to labor’s interests when it is used as a shortcut to avoid membership involvement. As pioneered by the UAW at the Spring Hill, TN plant in the 1980s and since made infamous by SEIU in the healthcare field, it takes power away from workplace and community struggles into the corporate boardrooms and Union offices. This method cannot empower the workers themselves to fight for their own interests.

It was the “partnership approach” of the UAW in Chattanooga, the willingness to subordinate everything to the goal of keeping peace with management to allow the certification, that lead to the defeat. By agreeing not to go all out to convince workers of the need for a union, but on the contrary making deals to limit future pay raises in the name of “competitiveness,” the UAW undermined its own support and potential power.

Anti-union sentiment in the South?

A lot of talk has followed the defeat of the UAW about the anti-union sentiment of Southern workers. The skill with which the right wing exploited this has already been discussed. The whole approach of the UAW smelled like a bureaucratic maneuver, intended to defend, not workers’ rights and wages, but the out-of-touch lifestyles which top union officials continue to enjoy while the union and its shop-floor power decline, and this lent credibility to the “carpetbagger” attacks.

Some of the statements of workers quoted in the national media show the effect of these attacks, for example when USA Today quoted Chattanooga resident Lee Person: “‘The UAW is from up North,” the 22 year old says, “I think the UAW just wanted to move down South.'”

Some capitalist commentators echoed the arguments of Left critics of the UAW: “Workers distrusted a union that had already made painful concessions to the industry”, comments the Washington Post (Blog, February 18), pointing out that “the union agreed to a two-tiered wage structure, under which new hires get paid around $14 an hour while old hands make closer to $30.”

In addition, many workers are aware of the UAW’s failure to effectively fight corporate attacks on pensions and retiree healthcare, for example in the 2006 Delphi bankruptcy, or its complicity in two-tier pay agreements going back many years but most recently in the post-2008 Federal reorganizations of GM and Chrysler. All of these failings and retreats were used against them by the far Right.

The “Detroit Argument”

The UAW presented itself as a tool to defend “competitiveness,” not the workers. Such an approach intends to appease the corporations and overpaid CEO’s. It’s the same approach that the once mighty UAW followed during the de-industrialization of Detroit.

The UAW’s failure to organize a fightback to defend jobs and factories has cost it 75% of its membership since 1979. From its peak of 1.5 million members, there are less than 400,000 left today.

To state it clearly: It was not the UAW or any union that turned Detroit into a museum of capitalist destruction. To protect their profits, the corporations decided to dismantle car factories, laying waste to jobs and communities. City, State and Federal governments stepped in with billions in tax breaks and subsidies to secure the interest of the shareholders while at the same time using City managers and the law courts to destroy the rights of pensioners and workers.

But the UAW never used its power to fight back against these attacks. The top-level union bureaucrats preserved their own salaries and expense accounts while transforming themselves into managers of workers’ pension funds and healthcare plans. They refused to be leaders in the battle to defend workers’ rights, on the contrary they used their power to obstruct workers’ efforts to fight back.

This is why the present UAW leadership has no arguments against the slander about the union’s role in the decline of Detroit. The “Detroit argument” of the right wing about the UAW’s role needs to be answered, but there will be no answer from Bob King or others who have lived the lives of the rich and infamous while presiding over and co-managing the decline of the once beating heart of industrial America. This is why, a little more than a year ago, it was possible for the State of Michigan to become a right-to-work state.

To re-build a strong labor movement and to organize workers in the South, the lessons of the decline of the UAW have to be drawn.

A combative union strategy is needed, based on an energetic defense of the interests of working class families. That’s much easier to implement with a socialist point of view.

Workers’ democracy is needed to get rid of over-paid union leaders who seek to preserve their privileges through rotten deals with the bosses. Every representative of a workers’ organization – including the unions – has to be subject to recall by the members who elected them.

No elected union leader must earn more than the average worker she or he represents. This is a principle Kshama Sawant implemented when she took office as Seattle’s first socialist City Council member in a century. Adopting this would be a huge step in the direction of union leaders earning back workers’ trust.

Temporary Setback”?

“I think it’s a temporary setback,” UAW president King qualifies the defeat in Chattanooga.

The capitalist commentators in Bloomberg Businessweek jubilantly state the opposite: “The defeat creates an enormous obstacle to labor’s ambition to organize at other foreign-owned auto plants in the South.”

As long as the real problems are not addressed, new failures are more than a threat.

The defeat in Chattanooga threatens to further undermine the credibility of labor to offer a way to fight back. Workers and young people are pushed to look towards other tools and means to express their needs. This complicates all of these struggles and the battle to renew the labor movement, a task that must be urgently addressed.

Not Just Republican Attacks

A renewed and rejuvenated labor movement is needed to answer the slanders of the Republican politicians. But it must not fall into the trap of blindly supporting allegedly progressive partners.

The anti-union campaign in Chattanooga used the argument that the UAW’s interest was to collect the workers’ dues and hand them over to campaigns for Democrats. These groups, close to the Republicans and Libertarian ideas, undoubtedly have their own agenda which is viciously anti-worker.

However, as long as labor is just trailing behind the allegedly lesser evil of the two parties of big business, it is a sentiment which will be used against the unions. The Democrats might share more of Volkswagen’s view, that high-paid union officials can act as a safety belt against future struggles. But they have not, will not and as we saw in this case did not stand up to fight against anti-union laws or challenge the power and the profits of corporate U.S. America.

A renewed labor movement can play a decisive role in building a new party of working-class people that will challenge the big business policies of both the Democrats and the Republicans.

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