Making Sense of UAW’s Devastating Loss in Mississippi

Joe Allen

Workers and civil rights organizers marched on the Canton, Miss. Nissan plant on March 4, 2017. (UAW)

The Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile, Aero­space and Agri­cul­tur­al Imple­ment Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UAW) union has stag­gered from one defeat to the next for many years. Three years ago, the union got a punch in the gut when it was defeat­ed in a recog­ni­tion vote at Volk­swa­gen (VW) in Ten­nessee. Friday’s defeat at Nis­san was noth­ing less than a knock­out punch end­ing for the fore­see­able future any efforts by the UAW to orga­nize the large, pre­dom­i­nate­ly for­eign-owned auto assem­bly plants in the South.

News of the defeat trick­led in on Fri­day night through friends who were present at the vote in Can­ton, Miss., where Nissan’s sprawl­ing, near­ly-mile-long assem­bly plant is locat­ed. More than 60 per­cent of Nissan’s approx­i­mate­ly 3,500 eli­gi­ble work­ers vot­ed over a two-day peri­od against the union. Most of us hoped to wake up on Sat­ur­day morn­ing to bet­ter news, but Nis­san — one of the world’s top automak­ers — beat the UAW hands down. It wasn’t even close.

It was cer­tain­ly dis­ap­point­ing news,” Scott Houldieson, the vice-pres­i­dent of UAW Local 551, told me over the phone dur­ing his lunch break on Sun­day. Houldieson is a 28-year vet­er­an of Ford’s Tor­rence Ave. assem­bly plant on Chicago’s far South Side. A lot us are dis­ap­point­ed. We had high hopes.”

Some saw it com­ing. A for­mer UAW orga­niz­er who request­ed anonymi­ty, told me this would be the out­come two weeks ago when I asked him about the approach­ing elec­tion. They’re going to lose two to one,” he told me. He was pret­ty much on target.

The Nis­san defeat won’t be an iso­lat­ed south­ern affair for the UAW: It will blow back to the union’s heart­land in the Mid­west. We’ve been told for years by Sol­i­dar­i­ty House, the UAW’s head­quar­ters in Detroit, that we can’t make sig­nif­i­cant con­tract gains because our den­si­ty [the per­cent­age of union work­ers in a spe­cif­ic indus­try] was too low to fight the Big Three,’” said Houldieson. With the defeat at Nis­san, we are backsliding.”

The warn­ing signs for los­ing the Nis­san vote were all there for us to see. Three years ago at VW in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., the UAW lost a vote even though VW was encour­ag­ing its work­ers to vote for the UAW. The Ger­man automak­er has had a long coop­er­a­tive rela­tion­ship with the Ger­man trade unions where works coun­cils’ — joint man­age­ment-work­er in-plant com­mit­tees — are present in many work­places. Under U.S. law, many legal experts would con­sid­er such coun­cils’ to be ille­gal com­pa­ny unions.

It was Tennessee’s aggres­sive Repub­li­can polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment that inter­vened in the VW union elec­tion with a no-holds-barred cam­paign to defeat the UAW. Sur­pris­ing­ly, they got some help from then-UAW Pres­i­dent Bob King. As Mic­ah Uet­richt report­ed in Feb­ru­ary 2014:

As pow­er­ful right-wing forces flush with cash mount­ed open oppo­si­tion, the union refused sup­port from local activists. The UAW did lit­tle to counter right-wing threats and scare tac­tics, and refused to expand the effort into a broad­er grass­roots cam­paign in sup­port of the union… Many already-union­ized Ten­nessee work­ers — approached the UAW about coor­di­nat­ing a grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty response to the vicious anti-union cam­paign, but were rebuffed.

It takes quite an arro­gant union lead­er­ship to refuse the help of friends and lose an elec­tion when it doesn’t even have a man­age­ment opponent.

The UAW did do some things dif­fer­ent­ly with the Nis­san cam­paign, at least out­side the plant. The union made a big effort to devel­op a rela­tion­ship with reli­gious and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. It craft­ed its cam­paign as part of Mississippi’s long and sto­ried Black Free­dom strug­gle with the slo­gan Work­ers’ Rights=Civil Rights.” Scott Houldieson thought this was a hope­ful sign.”

A March on Mis­sis­sip­pi” in sup­port of the Nis­san cam­paign drew more than 6,000 Nis­san work­ers, their fam­i­lies, local sup­port­ers, and fel­low UAW mem­bers from across the coun­try — includ­ing 20 Ford work­ers from Houldieson’s plant — to Can­ton into hear for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Bernie Sanders and actor Dan­ny Glover speak in sup­port of the UAW. It was an impres­sive turnout for a small south­ern city.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly — unlike at VW — the UAW had an aggres­sive in-plant man­age­ment deter­mined to keep it out. Only three of Nissan’s 45 assem­bly plants around the globe are non-union. The com­pa­ny ran a well-oiled cam­paign, includ­ing cap­tive audi­ence meet­ings and aggres­sive one-on-one meet­ings with employ­ees. These tac­tics are all per­fect­ly legal under U.S. labor law and have been employed by man­age­ment for decades. While the UAW filed numer­ous labor charges against the com­pa­ny, it failed to win the argu­ment on the shop floor.

Reach­ing for an expla­na­tion of their defeat, UAW Pres­i­dent Den­nis Williams released a state­ment that read, Per­haps rec­og­niz­ing they couldn’t keep their work­ers from join­ing our union based on the facts, Nis­san and its anti-work­er allies ran a vicious cam­paign against its own work force that was com­prised of intense scare tac­tics, mis­in­for­ma­tion and intimidation.”

Houldieson scoffed at Williams’ excus­es and pro­vid­ed anoth­er expla­na­tion. The UAW was born when scare tac­tics and intim­i­da­tion’ meant goon squads beat­ing union activists, com­pa­ny spies infest­ing plants and work­ers being fired at any sign of sup­port­ing the union,” he said. We made our biggest gains for our mem­ber­ship and the whole work­ing class when we were fight­ing — and we haven’t fought for a long time.”

Could anoth­er orga­niz­ing strat­e­gy have won? The for­mer UAW orga­niz­er told me:

My per­son­al opin­ion is that the elec­tion route was a flawed strat­e­gy. An elec­tion is the boss­es’ game, and a large num­ber of the work­ers were exclud­ed from the process because they were con­sid­ered temps. There was nev­er any con­sid­er­a­tion paid to pos­si­bly look­ing for weak links in the sup­ply chain, orga­niz­ing there, strik­ing for recog­ni­tion and try­ing to lever­age Nis­san that way.

Nis­san is real­ly vul­ner­a­ble to that kind of thing because they rely on Just-In-Time sup­pli­ers, and work­ers at the sup­pli­ers are poor­ly paid and treat­ed worse that the per­ma­nent Orig­i­nal Equip­ment Man­u­fac­tur­er or OEM work­ers,” that per­son con­tin­ued. Not orga­niz­ing get temps was dumb too. Sure, they can’t real­ly par­tic­i­pate in an NLRB elec­tion, but they are impor­tant to the pro­duc­tion process, tend to be treat­ed and paid a lot worse, and can shut down a line or a depart­ment if they are organized.

The UAW strat­e­gy nev­er con­sid­ered orga­niz­ing for strikes any­where in the sup­ply chain which is sad. The UAW was formed by mil­i­tant minori­ties engag­ing in sit down strikes, yet that strat­e­gy was­n’t on the table. Clear­ly, they for­got all of that his­to­ry when the put this cam­paign together.

The UAW has become a prison of its mod­ern his­to­ry. It has a very long track record of mak­ing con­ces­sions on wages, ben­e­fit, and work­ing con­di­tions to the Big Three” automak­ers, along with the new alba­tross around its neck — the loss of a string of recog­ni­tion elections.

Hope­ful­ly, some of the Nis­san orga­niz­ers will break ranks and tell us the inside sto­ry about how this avoid­able defeat took place. I’m sure that many on the UAW’s nation­al orga­niz­ing staff and key orga­niz­ers on the ground knew the out­come ahead of time but dared not to speak out ear­li­er because they feared retal­i­a­tion. There is much to learn. We need a UAW Jane McAlevey to come forward.

When the sto­ry is final­ly told, it will like­ly be one of incom­pe­tence, bureau­crat­ic sloth and unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic rule at work in the UAW’s defeat. But to get to the bot­tom of this loss, we will ulti­mate­ly need to inter­ro­gate his­to­ry. The fail­ure at Nis­san is an end prod­uct of sev­er­al long­stand­ing neg­a­tive his­tor­i­cal turn­ing points in the U.S. labor move­ment includ­ing the anti-com­mu­nist purge of the labor move­ment in the late 1940s, the fail­ure of the under­fund­ed Oper­a­tion Dix­ie,’ and the dom­i­nance of busi­ness unionism.

We, how­ev­er, are not pris­on­ers of our his­to­ry. There is a new social­ist move­ment in this coun­try — as well as a cry­ing need for an indus­tri­al strat­e­gy. It’s long past time to turn this around. The his­toric UPS strike of 1997 showed us the way for­ward. We need to make a change start­ing now.

Joe Allen is the author of The Pack­age King: A Rank and File His­to­ry of Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice, Viet­nam: The Last War the U.S. Lost and Peo­ple Was­n’t Made to Burn: A True Sto­ry of Race, Mur­der, and Jus­tice in Chica­go (Hay­mar­ket, 2011). He has writ­ten for Jacobin, Social­ist Work­er and elsewhere.
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