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What the Labor Movement Needs to Learn from the UAW-Volkswagen Vote

March 12, 2014
By Matthew D'Amico

As a political coordinator for a labor union that represents both public and private sector workers throughout New York State, I have seen how important union representation is for working men and women. Our members do difficult work, such as taking care of the disabled and sick, or plowing our roads after a snowstorm.  Thanks to their union contracts, fought for over decades, they are treated with more of the dignity and compensation they deserve.

In recent years, however, there have been intensified concerted efforts by big business and elected officials at the national and state levels to have unions not exist at all.   In the private sector, many good-paying union jobs in manufacturing have been outsourced to countries where labor is cheap and unions are almost non-existent.  And the assault on unions has continued with laws to make states “right to work” (which really means “we can force you to work for less”), and some states have passed or proposed laws taking away collective bargaining rights for public employees, as Wisconsin did.  The attempt to destroy unions and all that they have achieved—decent pay, safe working conditions, medical benefits, pensions–exists because every dollar that goes to a union worker takes away from the profits that corporations insist are their due.

•    The Need for Unions, and What Happened in Chattanooga

The need for unions to grow is larger than ever.  That is why I, like many people, followed so closely the organizing campaign of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The importance of this effort was clear, because more foreign-owned auto companies have been opening up plants down South, since labor is cheaper there and most workers aren’t organized.  What was unique about this campaign was that Volkswagen and the union both signed a neutrality agreement.  Volkswagen, which is used to dealing with workers who have strong union representation in Germany, agreed not to pressure workers against joining the union.

Here in the United States, particularly in the South, trying to organize working people is extremely difficult.  Companies constantly break the law by threatening and intimidating workers against joining a union.  Untold numbers of men and women have been fired simply for supporting unionization efforts.  As someone who did organizing in the South, I saw this kind of intimidation firsthand.  I spoke to people working in nursing homes in Georgia, making poverty wages as they cared for the most vulnerable, terrified to talk about unions because they feared being fired.  I heard law enforcement tell us we couldn’t stand in front of work sites and talk to people about the union, threatening us with arrest if we didn’t leave.

Many believed that with VW not actively trying to dissuade its workers from joining the union, the UAW would have a fighting chance to organize its first foreign-owned auto plant in the South.  As the campaign began it was clear there was a good chance the employees at the VW Chattanooga plant would vote in favor of joining the union, since the overwhelming majority had previously signed cards signaling their support for union representation.  Then something shameful and downright evil occurred.  Local politicians from the governor to members of the legislature to a U.S. Senator all threatened that if the VW workers voted for the union, the company would not expand in Tennessee and it might also lose further state subsidies.  In addition, right wing, anti-union groups put up billboards throughout the area to discourage support for the UAW, insisting that if workers voted for the union what happened to Detroit—bankruptcy—would also happen in Chattanooga.  As a result, the UAW lost by a narrow margin.  What we saw in Tennessee has gone on all over the country for decades: a ferocious assault on the rights of workers, going to great lengths to cripple or destroy unions.

•    The Central Fight Is Described

In an important issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss describes the underlying cause of what led to the UAW loss:

In 1970 Eli Siegel [the founder of Aesthetic Realism] explained that the profit system had reached the point at which it was no longer able to succeed. Though it might struggle on for a while, it would do so with increasing pain to humanity. And that is what has occurred. As production has been taking place in more and more nations, it has become harder and harder for US companies to haul in big profits for stockholders. They can do so now only by making the people who actually do the work become poorer and poorer—be paid less and less. That means crushing unions, because it is unions that have enabled working people to earn a dignified wage and be treated with respect.

… As big a fight as any going on in the world—indeed, as big a fight as any in the history of humanity—is the fight now taking place between the profit system and unions….It is a fight that even most union leaders have not seen clearly. We need to see it clearly, because the fight is really a sheer one: For the profit system to continue, unions must be defeated.

Ms. Reiss, who is the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, continues, describing the chief reason that “the UAW–with all its historic grandeur, kindness and power,” narrowly lost the VW election:

The furious meddling by government officials came because certain [anti-union] persons do see that if workers get paid well, the profit system won’t be able to go on. If unions prevail, profits will go to those who earn them—the workers—instead of persons who don’t do the work. And so those protectors of the profit way will fight against unions with every vicious weapon and sleazy trick they can. The UAW thought it had an amicable agreement with VW; it didn’t see that it was fighting the profit system as such, and so it was, perhaps, somewhat blindsided. (There’s VW itself. One can question how much it’s really for unions. You don’t set up a plant in a right-to-exploit state like Tennessee because you want a union.)

The story is not over in Chattanooga or the rest of the South, where many working people are demanding justice for themselves and their communities.  In fact there is a UAW organizing campaign going on at the Nissan plant in Oxford, Mississippi.  And it is clear that workers are ready to fight for their rights to be in a union.  For example, Chip Wells, an 11-year veteran working there, said, “People think that [the Volkswagen vote] derailed us, but we think it made us stronger…. Here labor rights are civil rights, actually human rights.” (Labor South blog Feb. 28thby Joseph B. Atkins)

Millions of Americans who are suffering—unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, worried about their future—are depending on a strong and vibrant labor movement.  So now is the time for union officials, activists, and rank and file members to be clear about what we are fighting for, and fighting against.  I’ve seen firsthand that Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that makes for that much needed understanding and meets the hopes of people, including every member of a union.  Ellen Reiss writes:

And if unions and the economic justice they represent succeed, the profit way will be done in, finished, kaput. When that happens it will be (as the idiom goes) good riddance to bad rubbish. There will be a way of economics different from any that has been. It will be based, neither on profit for a few nor on “collectivism,” but on an honest answer to the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: What does a person deserve by being a person?


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