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UAW’s April 19 Vote At Volkswagen In Chattanooga Will Set Tone For Unions In 2024

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Across the nation, workers are talking about the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), its contract victory, and the approach of its new militant leadership. That leadership is now up for its second big test: organizing the non-union auto workers into the union! 

The UAW has had a dramatic effect on the labor movement in the last six months. Shawn Fain, the union’s new President, and a slate of reform candidates defeated the old corrupt leadership of UAW on a program to fight the bosses and rebuild the fighting and successful traditions of the past.

2023 saw the UAW organizing a successful strike against the big three automakers (General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford). They won important gains in their contract, including 20% raises and ending the hated “two tier” system that divided workers. With this new contract and a fighting leadership, 2024 will show if this momentum can be transferred into organizing hundreds of thousands of non-union automakers.

The first vote will come at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 19. This plant is the only Volkswagen plant in the world where their workers do not have a union.

All the signs look good for a successful vote. Out of a total 4,300 workers, 300 workers have been recruited as election captains. This alone is a huge achievement, and marks a dramatic break from the top-down business methods of the past. Workers in the plant estimate they have organized 90% of the workers, in all departments.

Following right behind the Volkswagen vote, workers at Mercedes in Vance, Alabama have announced an upcoming union vote. 10,000 autoworkers in 13 non-union companies have signed union cards since November 2023. The overall goal of the UAW is nothing less than to recruit 150,000 autoworkers. That would equal the existing UAW members at the big three automakers.

New Strategy

These are astonishing results when compared to recent organizing efforts by labor. It flows directly from the dynamic program and methods of the Fain leadership.

Decades of abysmal failure by previous leaderships had failed to make any inroad in the growth of non-union auto producers. Their methods, called business unionism, were rooted in the union cozying up to the employer, and finding common interest with them instead of workers they are supposed to represent.

However, there is no common interest between workers and the boss. The boss wants to pay workers as little as possible, and work them to the bone to boost profits. No wonder business-unionist methods saw ever-worsening wages and working conditions for US workers. Any small gains in wages came at a cost. Usually this was the introduction of new tiers of lower-paid workers, a reduction in benefits or speed-ups on the job.

In 2023, UAW voted out their corrupt leadership, electing the new Fain leadership which promised to set a new fighting tradition for the union. Fain has been good on his word. Time and again he castigated greedy bosses for making massive profits by exploiting its workers. He says workers should get better wages by reducing corporate profits.

Most importantly, Fain has called for workers to organize the union themselves. This is a break from the business unionist model where paid organizers did the organizing. Not only was this expensive, but it was a failed policy. It leaves out the energy and creativity of the workers themselves. It also plays into the hands of the corporate CEOs who call unions “outsiders”.

The new campaigns in the auto plants are rooted in worker-to-worker organizing. The UAW has let workers run their own campaigns in the plants. 

At Volkswagen, the key demands are quality healthcare, increased safety rules, a real sick pay system and retirement security. For example, the company has a horrific record of policy on sick pay, forcing workers to use up their meager sick time on plant closures called by the company. They also discipline workers when they try to use any remaining sick time when they are sick and unable to come to work.

Workers have seen a “night and day” shift from the organizing methods of the old leadership. In the failed 2014 campaign to organize Volkswagen, the UAW forbade organizing committee members to talk to co-workers in the plant. Instead the union had a tent across the street for workers to sign a union card. Union staffers used phone calls to attempt to recruit workers to the union campaign, which just fed into the company message that the union is an outside force.

Past organizing campaigns similarly were house-visit driven, where workers were recruited individually by union staffers coming to their homes. This overly secretive approach worked in advance to lower the confidence of workers in the factories. It also put all the power in the hands of staffers. Ultimately it was based on a lack of faith in the courage and talents of the rank and file to organize in the workplace.  

In response to the company’s claims that the demands of workers would “wreck the economy,” Fain replied: “Yes, we’ll wreck their economy, the economy that only works for the billionaire class and not the working class!”

2023 saw the largest number of workers strike since 1968, with many of them leading to victories. Within this process, was the UAW strike. The return of the language of class struggle has had an electric effect across the labor movement.

A positive vote for the UAW at Volkswagen or Mercedes, or both, could well have a similar effect in inspiring more organizing on the job. There are examples of workers in other industries following closely the successes of the UAW.

Massive Breakthrough?

UAW victories at Volkswagen or Mercedes would be a massive breakthrough for unions and workers in the South. For over 50 years the bosses have defeated almost every effort by workers to organize unions. It is no accident that the employers have concentrated the construction of new industrial plants in the non-union South and the Upper-South.

Employers and the political establishment in the South have gone into overtime, attempting to defeat these new organizing drives. But the anti-union billboards are not having the same effect as in the past. Workers know that the unions are not an outside force – because it is they themselves who are leading the organizing drive.

Fain said: “For centuries, the Southern economy has been a rigged game – a scheme designed to enrich a select few at the expense of the many…It’s a system where the wealthy and powerful have hoarded the wealth and monopolized the power… So, to the bosses and talking heads: go ahead and cry your crocodile tears and rage against the inevitable. But know this: Southern workers are rising, and won’t rest until justice is served.”

Success in these organizing drives would be a momentous event. This would then set the stage for the second, and more difficult battle: To force the bosses to accept the demands of the workers and sign a contract that matches those of auto workers in unionized plants in the rest of the country. The bosses won’t just stand by and watch their profits threatened by unions. They will retaliate against workers, drag things out in the courts, and appeal to their political allies in both corporate parties.

These newly organized workers may need to strike for their first contract. This is how the UAW organized in the 1930s. Strikes are even rarer in the south and may face the full weight of the right wing city and state administrations, along with the sheriff and police departments. Any strike can be won if you close down production and spread the strike. These are all possibilities when working people decide enough is enough. 

To win such battles, the UAW will also need to build a campaign beyond their members. Such a campaign will need to include community organizing – mass meetings to organize union and non-union workers into common struggle around demands that can unify the working class. This poses the need for unions to build a new political party based on the working class to mobilize the wider working class into the struggle against the corporations and against both major parties that do their bidding.

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