The Volkswagen Defeat Wasn’t Inevitable—and Labor Can Still Win in the South

Chris Brooks

We must survey the UAW’s organizing drive at Volkswagen for pertinent lessons. Winning is never easy or certain, but it is possible. (UAW/ Facebook)

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 régime.

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.

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
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