UAW loss at VW: unions must not vacillate on racism

Several weeks after the United Auto Workers lost a close election at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., the discussion continues on why workers rejected union representation. The setback has prompted a healthy discourse — online and on the shop floor — among rank-and-file autoworker activists.

With the union’s national convention set to begin June 1, workers are discussing such problems as lack of militancy, the partnership with Detroit auto companies, two-tier pay and other concessions, little rank-and-file engagement, lack of democracy and a top-heavy bureaucracy. Any one of these issues, or all, could have contributed to the “no” vote at VW.

We should not, however, give too much credence to union opponents such as VW worker Mike Burton, who claims, “I am not anti unions, I am anti UAW.” (In These Times, Feb. 15) At Burton’s “No2UAW” website, it is clear that he conducted his in-plant crusade in concert with Republican Sen. Bob Corker, other right-wing politicians, the National Right-to-Work Foundation and Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform.” When Corker and his cohorts threatened workers’ jobs, their unfounded statements were featured prominently on the No2UAW website. Fear undoubtedly led some workers to vote “no.”

Few in the press, including the progressive press, have focused on how much these union-bashers appealed to racism and bigotry. Yet it is hard to misread Norquist’s billboards calling the UAW “United Obama Workers,” or to not hear “Dixie” in the name of the newly formed “Southern Momentum.” That group’s video, posted on No2UAW, warns workers that the UAW will “use your dues money” for “liberal causes” such as “abortion and gun control” — or for “their strike” in Detroit when the auto contracts expire. Other billboards showed images of devastated neighborhoods in that predominantly ­African-American northern city.

Norquist has a long history of supporting racist and right-wing causes. The NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have given Corker a “”zero percent” rating for his civil rights voting record.

The basis for a labor-community alliance

Chattanooga is roughly 35 percent African American and 45 percent communities of color. (2010 census) With these demographics, the UAW could have built a labor-community alliance to oppose the vile union-busting campaign. Forging anti-racist solidarity would let Black VW workers know the union supported them against discrimination and harassment — or scapegoating — if the union won. There is a long tradition of Civil Rights unionism in Tennessee, from the UAW’s organizing drive led by Black workers at International Harvester to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.

The UAW was built by linking labor and civil rights. In 1937, the sit-down strikes won union recognition at General Motors and Chrysler, but it took a four-year campaign and a 10-day strike in 1941 to win the same at Ford. What made victory possible was an alliance between the UAW and allies in the Black ­community.

Even now, in Canton, Miss., the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan has united pro-UAW Nissan workers with the community to oppose Nissan’s campaign of harassment against union supporters. The Nissan workforce is about 80 percent African American and the union drive is portrayed by supporters as a new Civil Rights movement. In January, for the second year in a row, Nissan workers protested outside the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The UAW did not pursue this strategy at Volkswagen. Gaining the company’s agreed-upon neutrality was treated as key to winning the vote. Community groups who wanted to help the organizing drive were given the cold shoulder.

On the masthead of pro-UAW “Volkswagen Workers United” on Facebook, union supporters in the plant appear overwhelmingly white. Given that Chattanooga has a significant African-American population, along with other communities of color, this raises questions. Did the union not do the outreach? Did it downplay Black support in order to win over white workers influenced by racist propaganda? Was it more important to establish a “partnership” with VW ­management?

It may be that the VW workforce does not reflect city demographics and Black workers are few in number. Nevertheless, challenging historic racism should be central to any organizing drive, especially in the South. Workers who want to change the UAW do have a positive model to draw on. Southern Civil Rights unionism is alive and kicking! Proof is in the march of 80,000 in North Carolina last month, uniting opposition to racist voter suppression with opposition to the assault on collective bargaining in one heroic act of resistance.