UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 17 February 2014

US Union Organising Drive stalls at Volkswagen Plant

Much glee is in evidence on the Republican right over the ballot result on union recognition in the VW plant in Tennessee. There the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) had look set to win a ballot of the workforce in favour of a recognised trade union, alongside a European style works council. After a ferocious campaign by local Republican politicians the workers voted by a close majority not to have a union, the UAW losing the vote by 626 votes for and 712 against. This was to be a show piece battle for how the UAW was going to unionise car plants across the traditional redneck deep south, but the result has led to serious questions about the organising campaign US style.

Many things were in place. VW management had agreed neutrality and would not campaign against the union and were relaxed about it on the basis of it being their model in Europe. The union focused resources on Organising and even had the support of a number of IG Metall activists who came to talk to the workforce. The union sold itself on the basis of an agreement with management not to raise wages beyond competing plants in order to ensure management profitability. So what went wrong?

Firstly there was a determined and resourced campaign in the community and at the gates of the plant against the union. Local politicians virtually promised that if the union was recognised then the company would lose tax incentives and would end up relocating somewhere else and the jobs would be lost. The political context of the deep south and these communities is not favourable, a history of racism and anti unionism is still a strong force in Tennessee. This is an area where they still do kill Reds. This opposition cannot be underestimated and was symbolic of what was at stake.

Secondly the message to the workforce appears to have been dominated by the need to appear not as a force for change but as a `we won`t rock the boat `option - which begs the question then what was actually in it for the workforce? The first problem of determined right wing opposition must have influenced the nature of the message. The UAW, it is claimed, had an undeserved reputation for destroying profitability in the rest of the car industry. The union chose to answer this by saying `we have changed`. Experienced organisers will know that a mixed message can very quickly unravel and it remains to be seen whether the union identifies this as a problem in the campaign. `What are we for? ` is a crucial element in an organising campaign. Classic organising looks for issue led campaigns - `widely felt and deeply felt`- but this does not appear to have been a visible part of the strategy.

So much for the specific problems in the campaign. But there are wider organising questions that it is worth addressing.

Was this the best target? A good start to a campaign to build a union needs some quick wins. This plant and others like it look like a big ask. This was a high profile campaign, with lots of organisers and publicity regarding IG Metall, but deep organising can take a long time and requires a longer time frame. So the question is about the strategy. Yes to focusing resources, yes to high profile campaigns but targeting is important and this target was a difficult one. Well done in 626 votes but this was not just about one plant, it was about a strategy of organising in a sector which has serious union enemies.

How decisive is management neutrality? The answer appears to be not at all. Would it have been harder to organise with management opposing the union? Sometimes there is a need for friction, for opposition in order to create the atmosphere for unions. The irony is of course that VW are a better employer in America because of the German trade unions, something that does not appear to have entered the consciousness of the 719 who voted no to the union. Along with the notion of looking to be seen as partners with management, the notion of neutrality is a big part of US union organising. This is one of the reasons that it does not lend itself to union movements in Europe. Yet we as a union seek partnership with Labour in local authorities, and we risk being tarred with the same brush when those employers seek to implement cuts and closures. The question of what kind of union builds with management permission is interesting. If that neutrality comes through a fight it can be a different kind of permission to that granted on the basis of management having nothing to fear. Fly too close to the sun and you get burnt.

Ideology based on class and workers is not old fashioned and a relic of the past. UK union activists who seek to emulate either the US model of partnership organising or the New Labour model of simply offering services to workers are doomed to fail. All over the world workers are still joining unions in Africa, India and South America. Union density is relatively high in Europe. The clothing factory workers in Bangladesh, security workers across Africa, show that unions that stand up for workers rights are the ones that grow. The US language of the `middle class`is symptomatic of a failure in ideology, a retreat so deep from workers rights that it makes Europeans, Africans and others cringe. Gore Vidal once said that US unions campaigned for health care plans at work whilst European unions campaigned for universal healthcare and that this was a vital ideological difference. Maybe now there is a need to dump this aspirational rhetoric for individual workers and start talking about class?

The UAW will recover from this and will eventually organise these workers in the sector. It may take longer, it may take a new strategy and it may mean require a socialist argument to take root. Labour history often shows that those workers who are deemed to be impossible to organise turn out to be the future leadership of the movement. That is what we hope for in Tennessee.