Balmy Houston would have been a nice setting for leaders of the American labor movement to throw a much-needed victory party. But just before the start of the winter meeting of the executive council of the AFL-CIO—the federation to which most American unions belong — labor suffered an unexpected defeat when a clear majority of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. voted against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.
The loss squelched any celebration in Houston, which had been chosen for the first time as a meeting place in order to symbolize the need to organize the South, according to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. The federation convention last September urged all unions to make long-term commitments to serious organizing in the South, a recurring theme in American labor union strategic debates.
Despite the Volkswagen setback, organizing — especially in the South — remains a priority. Without more members, acting with common purpose, the labor movement’s power will decline even further. Also, unions recognize their duty to organize workers in the South, whose rock-bottom unionization rates—below 5 percent in many Southern states, as opposed to 11.3 percent nationwide — are coupled with lower living standards and fewer rights at work than comparable American workers in other regions (except the Great Plains). And the weakness of unions in the South restricts advances of workers in other regions, as businesses move or threaten to move South to take advantage of low wages, tax giveaways and an anti-union climate.
Although unions can point to recent organizing successes in the South — such as state and federal government workers, airline employees, nurses, mobile telephone technicians and teachers — no foreign-owned vehicle-assembly plant in the region is unionized. Organizing the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant would have marked a major inroad for labor.
And the prospects looked good. Volkswagen remained neutral during the campaign, and may have been even tilted towards a union, in part thanks to the company’s generally positive relationships with its German union and with its worker-elected “works councils,” which have a decision-making role at every Volkswagen plant outside of the U.S. and China.
But well-financed right-wing groups and Tennessee Republican politicians such as Sen. Bob Corker aggressively attacked the union and threatened that unionization would destroy jobs.
“What should have been a local workplace decision turned into an experiment in new forms of right-wing zealotry,” Trumka told reporters on Monday in Houston, although he also suggested that an anti-union culture in parts of the South made organizing more difficult. “The ferocity of outside political and financial forces was unprecedented.” The Right won “round one,” he said, but “our efforts will go unabated.” (Indeed, unions often run more than one campaign to win representation at large factory, although they must wait a year to hold a new election.)
Though organizing strategies were a small part of the formal agenda in Houston, the loss at Volkswagen prompted much discussion of what lessons to learn going forward. Most union leaders seem to agree that the defeat represents, as Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen said, “a turning point for the right wing in this country.” Unions will have to counter such tactics more effectively in the future. “What works is inside organizing and links to the community,” Cohen said, citing the experience of the CWA, UAW and other unions in successful campaigns. “The key is that organizing is part of a democracy movement and not separate, as the Corkers of the world would like it to be.
On the sidelines, organizers debated other possible contributors to the UAW loss, such as its neutrality agreement with Volkswagen, which gave up house visits to workers (except by worker request), but opened the plant to union representatives. Faced with a choice between employer neutrality and house visits, veteran organizers did not agree on which alternative they would pick. The favored answer seemed to be ”both.”
Amid the disappointment, union organizers took note of other wins, and Trumka urged them to act more aggressively and collegially.
Others lamented the absence of Democrats, supposed allies of labor, from the fight. National Nurses United executive director RoseAann DeMoro, whose union has organized 7,000 nurses in southern states like Texas and Florida in the past three years, asked why Democratic politicians did not forcefully challenge Corker and the right. “Why aren’t Democrats 100 percent for labor?” she asked. “Where are our allies? Who’s standing with us visibly, forcibly? Democrats know the value of organized labor. They might say it sometime.”
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.