Following the vote against union representation at Volkswagen’s plant in Tennessee, the United Auto Workers filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board. The union is challenging the results based on “a firestorm of interference from politicians and special interest groups,” submitting a detailed description of a “coordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign” to “deprive Volkswagen workers of their federally protected right to join a union.” (uaw.org) The union is asking the NLRB to order a new election at the Chattanooga factory.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee — one of the 20 richest members of Congress at $60 million — threatened pro-union VW workers that the plant would not get new investments if it became a union shop. Gov. Bill Haslam and several legislators threatened to withhold state financial incentives. Ironically, German union representatives on VW’s board intimated they would oppose further investment in a nonunion plant.
While German unions were pushing for unionization, VW sent mixed messages. The UAW was given office space inside the plant, yet an “election agreement” between the two parties stipulated that the union could not make home visits — an essential component of successful organizing drives. They could not approach workers on the floor, only talk to workers who came to them.
The pact barred “disparaging” comments by either party against the other, yet supervisors were allowed to walk the plant floor wearing intimidating “vote no” T-shirts.
Had the union won, a joint, German-style “works council” would take over many bargaining functions. A clause pledged to maintain a “competitive” wage structure. Thus VW, with the UAW’s help, set up a scenario where it would win either way, continuing the business of exploitation with or without a union. The process denied workers the very “voice” that was touted as a reason to vote “yes.” The UAW also agreed not to attempt more organizing for at least a year if the vote failed.
A dead-end strategy
The company could have recognized the UAW without an election — a majority of workers had already signed cards authorizing union representation.
Nevertheless, anti-union forces accused the UAW of being “combative” and blamed the union for the bankruptcy of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford and even of the city of Detroit. A video by “Southern Momentum” — the name speaks volumes — claimed that Tennessee workers would be paying union dues to support a strike in Detroit.
UAW President Bob King could have responded: “Well, yes, we are combative, but we have to be. These companies have decimated our ranks with plant closings, technology and outsourcing, and keep demanding more concessions. They want two-tier to be permanent, leaving future workers without the decent standard of living that we won through the sit-downs of the 1930s and the long strikes of post-war years. The strike is our only weapon!”
King’s actual response was the opposite. “Our philosophy is, we want to work in partnership with companies to succeed,” he explained. “We’re concerned about competitiveness. … Those people [the right wing] who attack this are attacking labor-management cooperation.” (Washington Post, Feb. 14)
A union that was truly combative might actually have gotten a warmer reception from VW workers. Union opponents claim that what sank the union drive was workers learning that second-tier workers at the Detroit Three plants make less than VW workers, then finding out about the deal on competitive wages. “We don’t need the UAW to give us rights we already have,” said Mike Burton, a VW worker who led the anti-union drive. (New York Times, Feb. 14) Burton doesn’t say that without a union contract, workers’ pay can be slashed at a moment’s notice.
VW tried to deny they were in sync with Corker and his ilk. Had the UAW acted as the champion of the working class, rather than as a mediator between classes, they would have exposed this charade. Then, the workers would know they were up against a hostile company with the full weight of the capitalist state behind it. Some workers might still have voted no out of fear, but more might have welcomed the union with open arms.
One thing is clear. Class collaboration is a dead-end strategy. The loss at VW represents a dismal failure of the so-called “partnership.”
The UAW’s quadrennial convention opens June 1. This huge setback calls for thoroughgoing, wide-open and critical deliberations, leading to a revival of class struggle social unionism.
Next: The loss and the need to make racism a labor issue
Martha Grevatt is a 26-year UAW Chrysler worker.