When Culture Eclipses Class
Source Dave Anderson
Date 14/02/22/00:09
When Culture Eclipses Class
How the UAW could organize NYU grad students and not Chattanooga,
Tennessee auto workers

AMERICA IS where class struggle gets derailed by culture wars. It's
happened throughout our history. It happened again last week in

For more than a decade, the ability of the United Auto Workers to win
good contracts for its members--clustered in GM, Ford, Chrysler, and
various auto parts factories across the industrial Midwest--has been
undercut by its failure to unionize the lower-wage factories that
European and Japanese car makers have opened in the South. Daimler,
BMW, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen--all of them ventured to the non-union
South to make cars on the cheap for the American market. All these
companies have good relations with the unions in their homeland, but
by going south, they signaled they had little to no intention of going
union in the U.S.

It wasn't just that Southern states had those wonderfully misnamed
"right-to-work" laws that meant that even if the unions won collective
bargaining rights, workers didn't have to pay dues to the union for
raising the wages. In much of the white South, particularly among the
Scotch-Irish descendants of Appalachia, the very logic of collective
bargaining runs counter to the individualist ethos. It was no great
challenge for UAW opponents to depict the union as the latest in a
long line of Northern invaders, which is precisely what one anti-union
activist did during the UAW's campaign to unionize Volkswagen's
Chattanooga plant. In an op-ed in the Chattanooga Times Free Press
that ran several weeks before last week's vote at Volkswagen, Matt
Patterson of the Center for Worker Freedom (a spin-off of Grover
Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform), compared the UAW's campaign to
the Union Army's occupation of Eastern Tennessee during the Civil War
and urged workers to repel it as Confederates forces had done to that
Union army at the battle of Chickamauga. Clearly, this was not an
argument Patterson would have made had the plant employed more than a
handful of African-Americans, but Chattanooga remains one of the
whiter bastions of the New South. (The website established by the
Center for Worker Freedom is emblazoned with a logo reading
"Liberating Labor, One Worker at a Time"--quite the slogan for a group
that equated its anti-union struggle with a battle to defeat the army
that actually freed Chattanooga's slaves in 1863.)

For all of labor's troubles organizing in the white South, Volkswagen
was the one campaign that labor thought it could win. Under the
leadership of Bob King, the union had won the support of the German
auto-and-steel workers union, IG Metall, which, under the terms of
Germany's "co-determination" law, controls half the seats on
Volkswagen's corporate board. Indeed, due to Volkswagen's Nazi roots,
the American authorities in postwar Germany made the company go one
step further, requiring a two-thirds majority from board members for
any significant policy decision--in effect, giving the union veto power
over Volkswagen's various projects. Many of the workers who opposed
the very idea of a union at Chattanooga argued, rightly, that
Volkswagen was a good employer that paid them well and respected their
rights. They failed to realize that the company's conduct had been
largely shaped by influence that IG Metall wields over VW's labor

Working with his German union counterparts, King persuaded Volkswagen
to establish a works council--a consultative labor-management council
mandated by German law to meet regularly to shape company practices on
work shifts, overtime and kindred issues--at Chattanooga. The
Chattanooga works council would be the first on American soil, but
under the terms of U.S. labor law, it could only be established if
workers authorized a union to represent them. The very idea of a works
council bolstered King's argument that the UAW sought a less
adversarial relationship with its employers. There was precedent for
such a relationship. Indeed, Walter Reuther, the UAW's legendary
president from 1947 to 1970, had proposed a form of co-determination
in his negotiations with General Motors in the mid-1940s, but GM would
have none of it. Ironically, Reuther--of German-American descent--had
close relations with the postwar founders of IG Metall, and encouraged
the American authorities in post-war Germany to promote the kind of
partnership labor relations that that nation enjoys to this day. With
an employer like Volkswagen, King saw an opportunity to rebrand his
union in a similarly non-adversarial way.

From a political standpoint, it was a necessary re-branding. The UAW
had taken a terrific beating during the auto bailouts of 2009,
receiving much of the blame for the near bankruptcy of GM and
Chrysler. The fact that Ford, operating under the same UAW contract as
the two other car makers, was nowhere near bankruptcy should have
raised serious questions about the union's culpability for Detroit's
demise, but King's predecessor as UAW president, still in office at
the time, was almost criminally incapable of mounting a public defense
of the union. None was mounted, and the UAW entered popular
imagination as the most inflexible of labor organizations.

Still, the UAW had a lot going for it as it sought to organize the
Chattanooga plant. For once, an employer actually supported a drive to
unionize its workers. And because Tennessee is a right-to-work state,
anti-union workers wouldn't have to pay dues to the union even if it
won the right to represent them and won them a good contract. What
could go wrong?

As has happened so many times in American history, the South could go
wrong. Republican officials, led by Senator and former Chattanooga
Mayor Bob Corker, warned that other companies wouldn't locate in the
South if there were unions there. A Republican state senator from
Chattanooga threatened to deny any state assistance to the plant if
its workers voted for the union. Anti-union activists repeatedly
attacked the UAW as a nest of thugs and a den of liberals. They got
half of that right.

In fact, no institution played a larger role in the construction of
postwar American liberalism than the UAW. Under Reuther's leadership,
the union provided funds to civil rights activists who conducted the
Montgomery bus boycott, paid for the buses and sound system at the
1963 March on Washington, detailed staff and dollars to the efforts to
build municipal employee unions and Cesar Chavez's United Farm
Workers, donated resources to the fledgling efforts of Students for a
Democratic Society and the National Organization for Women, and helped
fund the first Earth Day. It lobbied for every liberal initiative on
Capitol Hill and volunteered its considerable expertise to the
development of many Great Society programs. It led the opposition
within the AFL-CIO against the federation's uber-hawkish Cold War
policies. It campaigned, then and now, for Democratic candidates,
which is the primary reason why Tennessee's Republican pols opposed it
so vehemently.

None of this was particularly helpful, however, in winning the vote in
Chattanooga. Since its founding in 1936, many UAW members have been
Appalachian whites come north to the factories of Midwestern cities.
Some became union leaders and supporters while others co-existed
uneasily with the growing numbers of African-Americans in the union's
ranks. During World War II, the union was stretched to the limits by
its efforts to forestall nearly daily racial violence on factory
floors. In the plants of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, there
was often a white backlash to the union's aggressive promotion of
civil rights, but it came from a minority of workers. This was the
legacy that the union brought South, and it was this--not its
fictitious reputation for thuggishness--that made the union so hard a
sell to some of Chattanooga's workers. The union's more recent support
for President Obama--hardly a popular figure in Eastern
Tennessee--epitomized the politics that repelled a number of the
union's opponents. So did the UAW's backing of Democratic candidates
who, its opponents alleged, threatened to take away the workers' guns
(though the UAW, like most unions with blue-collar members, has
largely steered clear of gun control issues).

By the same token, however, the UAW's liberalism doubtless was one
factor that helped it win a landmark representation election late last
year among a very different group of workers--the grad student/teaching
assistants at NYU. At first glance, this might not seem an election
the UAW could win. Though the UAW had organized the university's grad
students more than a decade ago, the National Labor Relations Board
during the George W. Bush administration (when Bush's appointees
comprised a majority on the board) ruled that grad students couldn't
form a union under the National Labor Relations Act, and the students'
contract with the university was nullified. Unlike Volkswagen
management, the NYU administration then opposed the union's and the
students' efforts to win representation outside the NLRB's
jurisdiction. For eight years, NYU refused to let the students vote,
but the UAW continued to build support for a vote not only among the
T.A.s but among the city's Democratic elected officials, who were as
predisposed to the effort as Tennessee's Republicans were appalled at
the thought of a UAW victory in their state. Last year, the university
agreed to let the students vote and to stay neutral in the election.
By a margin of 620 to 10, the students voted to have the UAW represent

Of the 390,000 or so UAW members, fully 45,000 are employed at
universities (until the NYU election, all of them public universities,
which are not subject to the NLRB's jurisdiction). The union's
commitment not just to its workers but to progressive causes is a
clear asset in organizing T.A.s and other university employees, just
as it was a obstacle in organizing auto workers in the South.

Thus the UAW of 2014--able to win overwhelming support from Greenwich
Village grad students, but unable to win a majority of Chattanooga
auto workers, who rejected the union's bid by a 712-to-626 margin. If
America broke neatly along class lines, the UAW should have won
Chattanooga in a romp and floundered at NYU. But as many unions have
discovered, generally to their woe, the politics of race and culture
often eclipse those of class in the United States. That's one big part
of American exceptionalism. That's just--alas--the American way.

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