The future looks bleak. The Republican Party is now the dominant force in more than two-thirds of state legislatures, a majority of governorships, both houses of Congress and the White House. Upon seizing power, one of the GOP’s first goals is to kneecap the opposition. For labor unions, that means facing the body blow of “right-to-work” legislation, which allows workers to receive the benefits of unionization without having to pay for it. Twenty-eight states have already passed right-to-work laws and more are likely to do so in the coming months. Congress has introduced federal legislation that would make right-to-work the law of the land in the private sector and Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court could mandate it for public workers.
The further entrenched the Republicans become, the more rapidly the balance of power in society shifts to the benefit of employers. The starkly asymmetric war against workers that has typified labor organizing in the South is quickly becoming the new status quo everywhere. Part of what has led us to this moment is the labor movement’s failure to organize below the Mason-Dixon line.
That failure was felt acutely three years ago, on a cold, rainy Valentine’s Day in Tennessee, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) came heartbreakingly close to winning a union representation election at Volkswagen. Had the UAW been successful, it would have established the first Auto Workers local at a foreign-owned auto company in the U.S. South. For the UAW, it would have also signaled a desperately needed reversal of fortune. Over the past four decades, the union has lost more than two-thirds of its members and industry standards for unionized workers have eroded under competitive pressure from an influx of non-union, foreign-owned auto manufacturers.
Speaking in 2011, former UAW president Bob King proclaimed, “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW.” Organizing Volkswagen was the UAW’s big, courageous gambit. The final vote count, 712 to 626, was the gut-wrenching conclusion to one of the most internationally scrutinized organizing drives in decades.
The media frenzy surrounding the vote was at least partly in reaction to the reversed power dynamics that turned the typical union drive on its head. As a German company, Volkswagen falls under that country’s Co-Determination Act. This Deutschland law mandates that labor representatives hold half the seats on the 20-member supervisory board of Volkswagen Group, which legally oversees the entire company. With labor on equal footing in the boardroom, the UAW pressured the company to voluntarily recognize the union. When that didn’t work, the UAW negotiated a neutrality agreement, which barred management from actively resisting unionization. Such an agreement would have been unthinkable at other foreign-owned auto companies.
To many in the business community — as well as their political proxies — the agreement was seen as an outrageous betrayal of their shared class interests. Speaking to reporters, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker used language invocative of Sherman’s March to the Sea, claiming that the UAW would leave a legacy that would damage the South “for generations to come,” as the union spread from Volkswagen to “BMW, then it’s Mercedes, then it’s Nissan, hurting the Southeast if they get momentum.” Similarly, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, one of the richest politicians in the country, warned the press that the UAW was establishing a “beachhead that would grow from there.” In the lead up to the National Relations Labor Board election, it wasn’t the company that fought the union, but a lively coalition of Tennessee Republicans, rightwing activists, business interest groups and out-of-state anti-union consultants.
While the story of UAW’s continued efforts to unionize Volkswagen has many unique twists, much of it is all-too-familiar. The drive once again exposed the extreme lengths that anti-union politicians and business groups will go to keep workers from unionizing. It showed the weakness of union strategies that focus more on partnering with management than encouraging adversarial worker activism. It also reaffirmed what should have been common sense to the UAW: Unions exclude the community from organizing drives at their own peril.
Since the political conditions in Tennessee are quickly becoming the norm nationally, Republican politicians and corporate interest groups are likely to see the UAW’s loss in Chattanooga as a roadmap to success — putting similar lessons and tactics to use in defeating future union representation elections. Given the difficulty of the road ahead and the urgency of the present moment, it is imperative that labor does the same. We must survey the UAW’s organizing drive at Volkswagen for pertinent lessons. Winning is never easy or certain, but it is possible.
Organizing the South
A key lesson of the Volkswagen organizing drive was that even if the company claims to be neutral, the South is not.
Shortly after the Labor Board announced the date of the union election, Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney working at a management-side law firm and the former in-house counsel at the Volkswagen plant, helped to raise over $100,000 from local businesses to form a non-profit called Southern Momentum. This non-profit worked closely with a small group of anti-union workers in the plant and out-of-state consultants to organize a “vote no” campaign. Southern Momentum ran anti-union advertisements in the local paper, organized a local “vote no” forum for Volkswagen workers and produced high-quality videos featuring anti-union workers explaining why they were voting against the UAW. Additionally, an out-of-state organization funded by the libertarian anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist purchased 13 billboards around the plant as well as radio and newspaper ads and organized an anti-UAW community forum with the support of local Tea Party leadership.
And all of these groups were working hand-in-glove with the state’s Republican leadership. Years before the vote, hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and tax abatements were offered up by state and local governments to convince Volkswagen to construct the company’s only U.S. auto plant in Tennessee, bringing 2,000 manufacturing jobs with it. In total, it was the largest taxpayer handout ever given to a foreign-headquartered automaker in U.S. history. In the months leading up to the union election, the Tennessee state government had been in negotiations with Volkswagen over an additional $300 million incentive package. This new incentive package was being dangled in the hopes of the company choosing to assemble their new SUV in Tennessee and not Mexico — a choice that would expand the Chattanooga plant and bring an additional 2,000 jobs to the area.
Press reports featuring leaked emails from the Haslam administration later revealed that the governor had used the $300 million to pressure the company into not voluntarily recognizing the union, forcing the UAW into a secret ballot election. Then, just two days prior to the vote, Republican state officials went on the record threatening the incentive deal if the workers voted to unionize. State senator Bo Watson, whose district includes the Volkswagen factory, held a press conference with other GOP officials and denounced the company as “un-American” for not fighting the UAW drive and flatly stated that if the workers voted to unionize then the state legislature was going to have a “very tough time” approving the incentives currently being negotiated. Nicely, speaking for Southern Momentum, said, “further financial incentives — which are absolutely necessary for the expansion of the VW facility — simply will not exist if the UAW wins this election.” Adding to the chorus on the day that voting began, Sen. Corker told reporters that senior members of Volkswagen management in Germany had personally assured him that “should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.”
Organizing the company
While the coordinated anti-union campaign was likely among the largest and most expensive waged by third-parties in U.S. history, it would be wrong to paint the union as a mere Valentine’s Day martyr. The UAW knew what it was getting into and should have prepared. Speaking well before the election, UAW District 8 director Gary Casteel, who now serves as UAW secretary-treasurer, told reporters that the Auto Workers were seeking voluntary recognition from the company because “we know if we go for a traditional election where the outside organizations could campaign against us, we’d probably lose.” Given that the UAW leadership understood how fiercely the state’s business and political establishment would oppose unionization, the neutrality agreement that the UAW entered into with the company stands out as a remarkably foolish gamble.
For one thing, the agreement barred the union from performing house visits with workers, so organizers couldn’t assess worker attitudes towards the union or shore up their support though face-to-face conversations in the privacy of their own homes. UAW staff instead relied solely on a “leadership council” of pro-union workers to collect cards and perform assessments in the plant. Not performing home visits isn’t necessarily fatal, if the in-plant organizing committee is strong active and thorough. But, in this case, the move was a mistake.
Max*, a team leader who has been at Volkswagen for six years and was a member of the UAW leadership council, says the UAW also made the fatal mistake of going to a vote with too small a pro-union margin. “The most support we ever had through card check was 54 percent,” he said. Not only was the margin low, but “the council of worker organizers that were trying to get cards signed was simply too small, with not enough reach and not enough work areas.” According to Max, the UAW chose to proceed with an election on a small margin without having assessed all the workers in the plant. The union did so on the wager that the benefits derived from the neutrality agreement would tilt the outcome in their favor. “The company did do a lot of things. They let [the UAW] have an office inside the building. Gary Casteel talked to the workers inside of an all-team meeting and they had hoped that would win more support,” Max said. “It didn’t.”
Additionally, the neutrality agreement contained a clause that barred the union from making disparaging claims against the company, basically prohibiting workers from publicly organizing around the issues they were facing in the plant, such as the increasing use of temporary workers to perform assembly line work, inadequate training, repetitive stress and the brutal rotating shifts that never allow workers to catch up on sleep or their bodies to heal. Instead, the UAW focused entirely on selling the idea that a vote for the union was a vote for a new form of labor-management partnership: forming the first ever German-style works council in a U.S. manufacturing plant. There was just one problem. “Nobody gave a dang about a works council,” said Clarence*, a pro-union assembly worker who has been in the plant for about five years. Clarence believes that the UAW wasn’t capable of building more support among workers for one simple reason: “They didn’t hammer down on any issues.”
The idea of a works council never resonated with Bruce*, who has worked at Volkswagen for six years and was a member of the UAW leadership council. Bruce agrees that the union should have focused on the issues that workers cared about in the plant. “I know people in the plant who are just like me that have never been a part of a union,” he said. “I would’ve liked to have shown them what a union is all about.”
The UAW’s willingness to trust the company also led to growing distrust between workers and UAW staff and leadership. According to union activists, the UAW told them that the company was committed to voluntarily recognizing the union once they had a majority of workers signed up on cards. After they had a majority of cards signed, the union said that they had to win a Labor Board election. After they lost the election, the UAW told the same activists that they were going to form a “members-only union” to represent those workers who voluntarily joined and that the company had again promised to voluntarily recognize the union once they reached a majority. So the workers formed Local 42 and signed up a majority of the hourly workforce. Again, the company refused to voluntarily recognize the union. In response, many workers no longer trust the UAW.
“We would go disseminate this information through our plant network and then Volkswagen would not do the thing we just said they were going to do,” said Justin King, who worked at Volkswagen for about five years and was an active member of the leadership council. “The UAW and organizers lost credibility.”
In place of voluntary recognition, Volkswagen created a “Community Organization Engagement Policy” that allowed for Local 42 leadership to meet and confer with senior management at Volkswagen. One of the workers that participated in these biweekly meetings was Myra Montgomery, the recording secretary for Local 42 who worked at Volkswagen for five years. After months of meetings that went nowhere, Montgomery told the union president that she believed the company had created the policy to disarm the union. “They’re just putting the pacifier in your mouth to shut you up and go on about the next two weeks,” she told him. “We’re just seeing each other’s faces and nothing is getting done.”
At the end of 2015, the UAW was successful in organizing a so-called “micro-unit” of 162 skilled trades workers at Volkswagen, the first union victory at a Southern transnational auto company. Fourteen months later, Volkswagen has yet to begin bargaining with the unit — an obvious violation of federal labor law — and is appealing the Labor Board’s certification of the union through the courts.
Additionally, Volkswagen has denied Local 42 members their Weingarten right to union representation in disciplinary meetings with management, while former rank-and-file UAW leaders like Montgomery and King believe they were targeted and terminated because of their union activities.
While the anti-union opposition worked with community leaders to organize public forums as part of the “vote no” campaign, the union expressed little interest in working with progressive community groups and activists.
“If you are in a community where the community is fighting you, whether that is in Wisconsin or Georgia, you have a problem,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. Even as the anti-union campaign escalated, the UAW still didn’t make meaningful community involvement a focus of their campaign. “If you’re not prepared for opposition from external forces and don’t expect it or change your campaign to deal with it,” says Brofenbrenner, “then you are going to lose.”
To this day, the UAW has little to no public involvement with progressive community organizations in Chattanooga. Meanwhile, Volkswagen sponsors countless community events, has plans to open a massive visitor center in the heart of the city and recently announced that it is funding science labs in local schools.
By choosing to organize the company and not the workers, the UAW set itself up for failure. (The union refused multiple requests for comment on this story.) It was rushed into an election without fully assessing all the workers in the plant and with too small a margin of support. The support it had was not deep enough to withstand the onslaught of anti-union activity from third-party groups. By turning the union election into a vote on labor-management partnership, the union failed to organize around issues in the plant and to make the union real for workers who had no previous experience in the labor movement. By resting its legitimacy on its partnership with the company, UAW staff lost credibility when management didn’t keep their promises. And because the UAW hasn’t done the work of recruiting enough strong workplace leaders and supporting them to organize on the shop floor, the union is no stronger or closer to victory three years later.
Trust the workers
The UAW didn’t have to lose at Volkswagen. The union could have won. Others have done it facing much tougher odds. Take, for example, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ organizing drive at the million-square-foot Smithfield Foods hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Located in a rural region of a state that for over 50 years has had one of the lowest union density rates in the country, the Smithfield factory is the largest pork factory in the world. It employs 5,000 workers who oversee the entire production process “from the squeal to the meal.” The work is so brutal and intense that the factory had a nearly 100 percent yearly turnover rate over the course of the union organizing drive.
The organizing campaign was a 16-year roller coaster, full of ups and downs, stops and starts. Workers faced down the usual employer threats to offshore production and targeted firings, as well as corporate tricks straight out of the 19th century: union activists were physically beaten and arrested by company-deputized officers. Twice the union lost a secret-ballot election and twice the Labor Board ordered a redo in response to the company’s egregious violations of federal labor law. The third time around, the union fundamentally changed its approach — and in 2008, the work paid off when the workers vote 52 to 48 percent in favor of unionizing. At the time, it was the largest private sector union election in decades.
“Everyone in the country is about to face the same conditions that we have to deal with in the South,” said Gene Bruskin, campaign director on the UFCW’s third and final unionization attempt at Smithfield. “You can’t count on any favorable conditions. You can’t count on many people having favorable experience with unions, can’t count on having a friendly company. You can’t count on having community support. You cannot be under any illusions.”
What the union did count on was the leadership in the plant and their allies in the community. “Fundamentally, I believe that you need an inside and outside game,” said Bruskin. The union built a strong in-plant organizing committee that mapped the plant and identified rank-and-file leaders in the different production areas, recruiting them to the campaign and involving them in actions that escalated pressure on the company from the shop floor. Workers held union meetings in the cafeteria during lunchtime, providing updates and leading chants while management looked on helplessly. Workers engaged in small group work stoppages. They circulated an in-plant newsletter called Gone Hog Wild. Hundreds wrote “Union Time” on their helmets in public defiance of management. These actions grew confidence and solidarity among the workforce.
While the inside strategy was moving, the union worked with state and national allies to pressure the company from the outside. Allies put a media spotlight on the union campaign through targeted consumer boycotts, penalizing the company when it overreacted to worker actions in the plant and pressuring management to come to the table and negotiate. The inside-outside strategy eventually resulted in the union securing an agreement with the company that allowed union staff to have a presence on the premises to meet with workers and to appoint a third-party to monitor the Labor Board election and enforce the terms of the agreement.
The neutrality agreement at Smithfield stands in sharp contrast to the agreement at Volkswagen. “We fought for neutrality at Smithfield. We fought hard and the workers were a part of that fight,” said Bruskin. “So when the company let us walk into the plant in the lead up to the election, the workers knew that this was the result of a victory.”
Workers don’t join a union because it is friendly with the company, but because there are real issues that they face on the job and would like to change. “Since Volkswagen is under pressure due to international labor-management agreements, the UAW is in an even stronger position to engage in fights around issues in the plant,” said Bruskin. And yet, the UAW has yet to capitalize on the leverage that German unions have over the company to drive organizing on the shop floor in Tennessee.
Even if the UAW had won, what kind of union would it have built? The organizing drive at Smithfield produced a high-functioning union local. Workers know what it took to win the union and they know what it will take to keep it. The union has been able to maintain over 80% union density in a right-to-work state — a lesson that should be taken to heart by unions across the country that are staring down the barrel of a right-to-work regime.
“We’re going to be living in a right-to-work world in a while,” said Bruskin. “It doesn’t mean you can’t win or have high membership. It means you have to get off your ass and you have to work.”
* Current Volkswagen employees quoted in this story spoke under pseudonyms because they feared retaliation under the company’s strict media policy.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Chris Brooks is a labor journalist and organizer. He currently works as the field director at the NewsGuild of New York.