The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

David Moberg

Hundreds of workers and civil rights leaders marched on the Canton, Miss. Nissan plant on March 4, 2017. (UAW)

After years of painstak­ing work by Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW) orga­niz­ers to build sup­port for a union at the big Nis­san auto and truck assem­bly plant near Can­ton, Miss., the work­ers them­selves will vote today and tomor­row on whether to accept UAW their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing voice at the plant.

I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW pres­i­dent Den­nis Williams told a press con­fer­ence just days before the vote, but we’re doing an ongo­ing eval­u­a­tion. We’ve been think­ing about it for six to sev­en months,” rough­ly since the UAW held a large march and ral­ly at the fac­to­ry attend­ed by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about a surge in the kind of unlaw­ful man­age­ment tac­tics to scare work­ers that brought charges against Nis­san this week from the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board.

The Can­ton fac­to­ry is one of only three Nis­san fac­to­ries world­wide where work­ers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto trans­plants,” or for­eign-owned fac­to­ries built with state sub­si­dies for the past three decades, large­ly in the South and bor­der states. 

Many see the upcom­ing vote as anoth­er test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union mem­ber­ship has his­tor­i­cal­ly been well below the nation­al aver­age. How­ev­er, the bat­tle is far greater. Now the cor­po­rate strate­gies and val­ues of the South have per­sist­ed and influ­enced multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies, as well as labor rela­tions and pol­i­tics in the North. The Nis­san cam­paign is best con­ceived as a bat­tle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nis­san has not yet respond­ed to a request for comment.

Orga­niz­ing the South

Orga­nized labor, usu­al­ly prod­ded by left­ists in the move­ment, has under­tak­en high-pro­file cam­paigns in the South to orga­nize unions across the racial divides. Such dri­ves were espe­cial­ly promi­nent dur­ing the 1930s-era orga­niz­ing upsurge and the post-World War II Oper­a­tion Dix­ie,” which lacked ade­quate sup­port from exist­ing unions and was plagued by inter­nal polit­i­cal divisions. 

The UAW has, at var­i­ous times, esca­lat­ed orga­niz­ing in the South, espe­cial­ly when Gen­er­al Motors was con­sid­er­ing relo­cat­ing much pro­duc­tion there in the 1960s — and when the trans­plant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the short­com­ings of labor’s cam­paigns, many union strate­gists think that unions can only reverse their decline by direct­ly tack­ling the racist strat­e­gy of employ­ers and their con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal allies. But employ­ers have many tools to divide work­ers, such as Nissan’s employ­ment of tem­po­rary, con­tract work­ers to divide a pre­dom­i­nate­ly African-Amer­i­can workforce.

In recent years, the South has suf­fered key orga­niz­ing blows, includ­ing the big defeat in Jan­u­ary for the Machin­ists’ union try­ing to orga­nize the new Boe­ing fac­to­ry in Charleston, S.C., and the lim­it­ed UAW suc­cess orga­niz­ing a skilled trades union at Volk­swa­gen in Chat­tanooga, Tenn. against a sup­pos­ed­ly neu­tral employ­er. Such defeats typ­i­cal­ly inspire fune­re­al chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like par­ty music for man­agers and investors.

Yet, some orga­niz­ers dis­pute that the South is impos­si­ble ter­ri­to­ry. One vet­er­an orga­niz­er with the AFL-CIO, who has over­seen many orga­niz­ing dri­ves in the South and asked not to be iden­ti­fied or direct­ly quot­ed, said that he thought it was not sig­nif­i­cant­ly more dif­fi­cult to orga­nize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The orga­niz­er cit­ed one suc­cess that defied expec­ta­tions: the cam­paigns over rough­ly 15 years to orga­nize 26,000 work­ers and pre­serve busi­ness at Louisiana’s giant Avon­dale ship­yards for a shift­ing cast of cor­po­rate own­ers doing repair and rebuild­ing work main­ly on mil­i­tary con­tracts. Ulti­mate­ly, a decline in mil­i­tary orders led its lat­est own­er to close the ship­yards, wip­ing out the orga­niz­ing victory.

The unions often do not real­ize it, but they have been win­ning in the South more than in the Mid­west for years,” says Kate Bron­fen­bren­ner, a Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty labor rela­tions pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in research on union orga­niz­ing. Because [in the South] there are more women work­ing, more African Amer­i­cans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those cat­e­gories of work­ers is more pro-union than their coun­ter­parts, thus build­ing in a small the­o­ret­i­cal advan­tage in the South. 

The South’s poor labor stan­dards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor stan­dards of the South are spread­ing nation­wide. The ascen­dant con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal pow­er of the new Repub­li­can Par­ty, linked with the more aggres­sive­ly anti-work­er and anti-union poli­cies of big cor­po­ra­tions and finan­cial firms, indi­cate that, in this country’s long Civ­il War, the South is gain­ing ground.

Con­sid­er what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s morn­ing in Amer­i­ca” ads were on the hori­zon, as well as in 2016, when Don­ald Trump pledged to make Amer­i­ca great again.” Then and now, most peo­ple would con­sid­er Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin as typ­i­cal­ly north­ern, in terms of labor con­di­tions and union den­si­ty. Yet over that peri­od, fed­er­al data shows that the per­cent­age of all work­ers in Michi­gan who were cov­ered by union con­tracts dropped from 32.8 per­cent in 1983 to 15.5 per­cent in 2016. For Wis­con­sin, the share dropped from 26.9 per­cent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are los­ing mem­bers and fail­ing to gain new ones at an ade­quate rate to avoid the rough halv­ing of the union share of the work­force over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North. 

Assault on work­ers knows no boundaries

It will be bet­ter for work­ers every­where if the Can­ton, Miss., work­ers vote for the union, but man­age­ment still has the upper hand. Work­ers are still weak and get­ting weak­er near­ly every­where, with par­tial excep­tions, like the Fight for 15 move­ment, which flour­ish­es in near­ly all of the country.

Right to work” laws threat­en unions nation­wide, by pro­hibit­ing them from charg­ing agency fees to work­ers who do not join the union but ben­e­fit from actions it takes. In recent years, the wide­spread pas­sage of such laws out­side of the South — now extend­ing to half of all states — is a clear indi­ca­tion of the decline in union power.

Work­ers in Can­ton may win a union for a vari­ety of rea­sons beyond the basic propo­si­tion that they need col­lec­tive pow­er to counter the pow­er of their boss­es. Or they may reject the union due to fear engen­dered by Nis­san and its anti-union cam­paign, out of con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal beliefs or for oth­er reasons.

The best union orga­niz­ers — and some very good orga­niz­ers have played a major role at Nis­san — under­stand how impor­tant it is to involve work­ers them­selves as-orga­niz­ers in reach­ing out to work­ers. In addi­tion, orga­niz­ers rec­og­nize it is vital­ly impor­tant to mobi­lize the pro­gres­sive lead­ers and groups in the com­mu­ni­ty for sup­port, and employ a wide assort­ment of tac­tics to min­i­mize the influ­ence of the boss’s war on unions — a war con­duct­ed in large part on turf and terms favor­able to the employer. 

How­ev­er, if the labor move­ment is striv­ing to with sig­nif­i­cant gains for work­ers, it must cre­ate a pro­gres­sive strat­e­gy for pol­i­tics, work­place orga­niz­ing and cul­ture that focus­es on the work­ing class very broad­ly con­strued, includ­ing mul­ti­ple lev­els of pover­ty, afflu­ence and job his­to­ries. U.S. union orga­niz­ing will need to strength­en and expand its com­mu­ni­ty activ­i­ties to devel­op a broad­er range of strate­gies to defeat racism. With­in such a polit­i­cal con­text, union orga­niz­ing might pros­per — and work­ers might do so as well. 

Whether the UAW does or does not win this sum­mer, future suc­cess­ful orga­niz­ing of work­ers in their com­mu­ni­ties and work­places require an alter­na­tive polit­i­cal force that is more sup­port­ive and transformative.

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.

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