A Sympathetic Critic

This In These Times piece on the UAW vote in Tennessee by Mike Elk is getting a lot of attention.

Here’s the short story:

Workers and organizers cite outside interference, management collusion, union missteps, two-tier agreements and Neil Young

It’s very good work. Elk was there and he’s a labor writer who understands the issues, but the part of the piece that is getting the most attention is where he analyzes the union’s role- what they could have done differently. The piece is quite tough on the UAW:

Criticisms of the UAW
The No 2 UAW campaign used the very neutrality agreement that the UAW signed to argue that the union was making corrupt deals with management without worker input.
“We got people to realize they had already negotiated a deal behind their backs—[workers] didn’t get to have a say-so,” hourly plant worker Mike Jarvis of No 2 UAW told reporters outside of the plant last night.
“What the UAW is offering, we can already do without them,” says hourly worker Mike Burton, who created the website for the No 2 UAW campaign. “We were only given one choice [of a union]. When you are only given one choice, it’s BS. It would be nice if we had a union that came in here and forthright said, “Here is what we can offer.”
“I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW,” Burton continues. “There are great unions out there, and we just weren’t offered any of them.”
Some labor observers have questioned whether provisions in the neutrality agreement may have also hampered the UAW’s ability to make its case. “Though neutrality agreements often help avoid vociferous employer opposition, unions also have to give up powerful organizing or negotiating tools,” says Moshe Marvit, a labor lawyer and fellow at the Century Foundation.
Also, pro-union community activists, who spoke with In These Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of hurting their relationships with the UAW, spoke about difficulties in getting the UAW to help them engage the broader Chattanooga community. Many activists I spoke with during my two trips to Chattanooga said that when they saw the UAW being continually blasted on local talk radio, newspapers and billboards, they wanted to get involved to help build community support.
However, they say that the UAW was lukewarm in partnering with them.
“There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you,” said one Chattanooga community organizer, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.”

It’s probably really worthwhile to look at the UAW’s role in the loss if for no other reason than because the union’s actions are the only part of this that labor and labor supporters have any control over.

Elk concludes with this:

Still, at the end of the day, unions make missteps in union elections all the time and often face opposition from management, and the workers still sometimes win. Indeed, the NLRB reports that unions won 60 percent of elections conducted in fiscal year 2013.

To find out what the “Neil Young Factor” is all about, you’ll have to go over and read the piece.

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Pinterest
Share On Reddit

37 replies
  1. 1
    piratedan says:

    a southern man don’t need him around, anyhow……. is my best guess….

  2. 2
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Kay, you’re really mean. Now I have to go and read the piece to see WTF Neil Young had to do with it. Neil’s had some pretty fucked up political notions in the past, which has concerned me…probably related to some thoughts by Cyndi Lauper.

  3. 3
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Turns out piratedan was right on the money!

  4. 4
    Napoleon says:

    To find out what the “Neil Young Factor” is all about, you’ll have to go over and read the piece.

    They didn’t like Neil’s song “Union Man”?

  5. 5
    Napoleon says:

    By the way, interestingly that article, in the little bio thing at the end, is the first time I happen to see mentioned that in fact VW did have a factory here at one time in PA (I use to drive buy it some times after it had closed)

  6. 6
    burnspbesq says:

    If we lived in a better world, some enterprising reporter would have asked Bob Corker where those so-called “assurances” about the small-SUV project came from. Based on what I have read, the factually correct answer appears to be “out of my ass.”

  7. 7
    Kay says:

    @burnspbesq:

    It was all so garbled, though, like elections always are. There was this whole theory where suppliers had told Corker they wouldn’t locate next to a UAW plant.

    He was able to take advantage of all the rumors and confusion with his…. CERTAINTY!

    That always works, sadly. Always. I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

  8. 8
    Glocksman says:

    It also specifically prevented the UAW from holding one-on-one meetings with workers at their homes except at the worker’s express request. House visits are a common tactic used by union organizers to build trust with workers and answer questions about individual needs and concerns. One longtime labor organizer, Peter Hogness, was so shocked that the UAW didn’t do house visits that he sent me a message today to ask me if it was true.

    The UAW deserved to lose if they were clueless enough to give up house visits.
    I’ve done my share of them over the years, both at my own plant and as part of an organizing drive in Maryland.

    They’re essential in persuading the ‘leaners’ to vote yes, as you can counter the all of the anti-union bullshit one on one, answer questions, and give them real life examples of what the union can and can’t do for the worker.

    It sounds as if the UAW tried to run a top-down campaign in the style of Rmoney’s 2012 run.
    And got the same result.

  9. 9
    David M says:

    IIRC, it was VW that objected to the house visits and UAW took a gamble that having the support / cooperation from VW was worth more.

  10. 10
    James E. Powell says:

    It’s probably really worthwhile to look at the UAW’s role in the loss if for no other reason than because the union’s actions are the only part of this that labor and labor supporters have any control over.

    This and this and this. See also, the role of activists in state & local elections, especially the midterms.

  11. 11
    Barry says:

    From the article:

    ” “I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW,” Burton continues. “There are great unions out there, and we just weren’t offered any of them.”

    Burton’s argument seemed to mirror that of Sen. Bob Corker, who routinely made statements such as, “”It’s not about union or anti-union, it’s about the way the UAW conducts business.””

    The day that another union attempts to organize, and gets as many votes as the UAW did, will be the day that these guys are not lying.

  12. 12
    James E. Powell says:

    @Barry:

    Burton’s argument seemed to mirror that of Sen. Bob Corker, who routinely made statements such as, ”It’s not about union or anti-union, it’s about the way the UAW conducts business.”

    This is nothing more than the same old GOP line. Cf. “We believe in health care reform, just not this president’s proposal.”

  13. 13
    Glocksman says:

    @David M:

    From the article:

    While the neutrality agreement forbade Volkswagen from campaigning against the drive, plant worker and union activist Byron Spencer says that low-level supervisors and salaried employees—who were not eligible for the union—ignored the directive and actively opposed the drive. He also reports seeing multiple low-level supervisors and salaried employees at the plant wearing “Vote No” T-shirts in the days leading up to the union election

    IANAL, but it seems to me that VW failed to uphold the agreement in allowing any ineligible employees to voice their opinion WRT the union.

    While VW can’t be realistically expected to police the off-shift activities of their salaried workers, they damn well can be expected to tell those wearing ‘Vote No’ shirts and opposing the drive while at the plant to either take off the shirts and shut up, or be fired for insubordination.

  14. 14
    Kay says:

    @David M:

    Right. That was the neutrality agreement. Elk’s interviews suggest that the UAW was harmed by the neutrality agreement more than it was helped.

    The UAW needed the ability to use the tools that they have to advocate vigorously, and they gave that up so VW would remain neutral.

    It makes sense. “Neutral” would tend to favor the status quo, which in this case was “no union”. They needed to move the workers OFF “no union” where VW just had to keep them where they are.

  15. 15
    Kay says:

    @James E. Powell:

    This is nothing more than the same old GOP line. Cf. “We believe in health care reform, just not this president’s proposal.”

    This is a constant with conservatives and unions. They do it all the time. No union is ever just right :)

    Also, they can’t go after actual union members who vote for Republicans, so instead they go after “union bosses”. Corker was somewhat hampered in his “UAW sucks!” lobbying campaign because Tennessee has a UAW facility and Corker campaigns there and claims credit for its success.

    Conservatives have to tie themselves up in knots on unions “on the ground” in their states, because a lot of union members vote for Republicans. It’s amusing to watch. They’re completely full of shit.

  16. 16
    Josie says:

    Kay – What do you think are the chances of getting the results invalidated and having a second vote?

  17. 17
    James E. Powell says:

    @Kay:

    Conservatives have to tie themselves up in knots on unions “on the ground” in their states, because a lot of union members vote for Republicans. It’s amusing to watch. They’re completely full of shit.

    It may be amusing, but they won. I still believe that union members voting for Republicans is like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders, but I also feel like that war is over and the unions lost.

    Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to declare the union movement dead and initiate some other movement that proposes a different means by which to ameliorate the imbalance between the ruling class and the working class. Then I realize I am sounding like a year 2000 Nader supporter.

  18. 18
    Kay says:

    @Josie:

    I have no idea. I followed Twitter feeds during the run-up and the vote because I love the immediacy of lurking on Twitter for these typa things, so I learned quite a bit, but not about the legal process or specific rules.

    My gut answer would be that it would be a bad idea as far as “optics” or creating good will for the broader cause.

    I think people there would resent overturning an election, quite frankly. I know I would resent it if I had voted “no” and won.

  19. 19
    The Snarxist Formerly Known as Kryptik says:

    @James E. Powell:

    Why bother declaring it? Unions as an actual power seem to be functionally dead at this point. Sure, they’re around and make votes, but it’s obvious they’ve lost the war.

  20. 20
    Kay says:

    @James E. Powell:

    “initiate some other movement that proposes a different means”

    I’m all ears! I think that would be great. Except no one ever comes up with one.

    There’s this sense, sometimes expressed, that labor unions are “olde timey” (as my 25 year old son jokes) but the other part of “olde timey” is no one ever came up with anything comparable to replace them. Is it a really resilient idea because we all lack imagination and the will to innovate, or is it a really resilient idea because it makes the most sense and that’s why people keep returning to it?

    I think we need something other than state policy and state actors. There has to be a force that is outside the state realm, or we end up seating high-level punditry roundtables on the Earned Income Tax Credit and making people passive except for when they’re backing a political leader. That’s too attenuated for me. I don’t think working people should have only one outlet (political) to get a seat at the table. They need another one. They can be their own advocates where they work.

  21. 21
    Baud says:

    @Kay:

    No big ideas. But I have to admit, I find the whole union system to be relatively opaque. Not sure what can be done to make it more understandable to folks.

  22. 22
    James E. Powell says:

    @Kay:

    Completely agree with you and I would add that until that next thing shows up, we need the unions we do have.

  23. 23
    Citizen_X says:

    @Kay:

    There has to be a force that is outside the state realm, or we end up seating high-level punditry roundtables on the Earned Income Tax Credit and making people passive except for when they’re backing a political leader.

    Also needs to be something other than consumer action.

    Our other main interaction in the economy is as employees. Whatever is “not unions” would have to look, sound, be organized as, and act as a union. You can call it something else, but it would still be a union. Maybe what needs to change is the image of unions as a male/blue collar/industrial thing. But that would not change its essence.

    I don’t see an alternative.

  24. 24

    That is what his theory what it is, and it belongs to him and it’s his and what it is, too!

  25. 25
  26. 26
    Kay says:

    @Baud:

    It is legalistic and rule-bound, and a lot of people think that was deliberate- that it was a movement that was “defanged” by federal laws, codified and made abstract and professionalized to the point of uselessness.

    Once it became the work of lawyers people naturally were just appalled and repelled:)

    This is a good book by a labor lawyer that explains that historical background and process in a very entertaining way.

  27. 27
    Violet says:

    @Citizen_X:

    Our other main interaction in the economy is as employees. Whatever is “not unions” would have to look, sound, be organized as, and act as a union. You can call it something else, but it would still be a union. Maybe what needs to change is the image of unions as a male/blue collar/industrial thing. But that would not change its essence.

    This is exactly the point, though. Just like people love all the provisions of the ACA but don’t like “Obamacare”. Unions are seen as blue collar, industrial, factories, and the word “thug” is associated with them (“union thug”) and some of their best known people are people like Jimmy Hoffa. That really isn’t the kind of image that makes modern cubicle workers or retail workers want to join.

    Unions need a new name. They need to emphasize words like “employees” over “workers”–because “workers” sounds like blue collar/industrial, etc. There is a false dichotomy between “workers” and the average cubicle employee that businesses like to exploit. Smart NewUnionOrganization would find a way to include cube farm workers in the organization and exploit the 99% vs 1% issue.

    I found this whole deal with VW fascinating since Germany has a law that companies over 500 employees are required to have worker representation on the board. Of all companies, Volkswagen should be pretty familiar with dealing with unions and other trade organizations.

  28. 28
    Kay says:

    @Violet:

    Of all companies, Volkswagen should be pretty familiar with dealing with unions and other trade organizations.

    They were. The reason they made the deal is they can’t have a worker’s council in the US w/out a union vote. There are only two places where they operate where they don’t have worker’s councils- the US and China. It’s not great company to be in, w/China, unless our national goal is to race to the bottom on wages as quickly as we can.

    The US doesn’t have great labor laws. We’re sort of stuck on the 1980’s plan of “firing the air traffic controllers” and then…prosperity! We didn’t make a whole lot of progress after that totally awesome and bold ‘n brave political stunt.

  29. 29
    Violet says:

    @Kay: The US pretty much started going to hell around 1980. Some things got worse before and some after but 1980 is a good guess when anyone asks when things started to get worse. It’s never off by more than a few years.

  30. 30
    Kay says:

    @Violet:

    It’s a lethal combination of abuse mixed with neglect. There was no reason we couldn’t have updated our labor laws along with the rest of the world, but we just decided to stubbornly resist.

    This was really an attempt to go around the political process and MOVE in some direction other than straight down. You know, a chosen, considered direction, rather than just letting markets work their magic.

    You’d have to actually care about middle class wages to put some effort into it, and we apparently didn’t. We were busy creating bubbles and fawning over CEO’s.

  31. 31
    Violet says:

    @Kay: Oh, trust me, I used to work with Wall St. types. I know them very well. They do not care about middle class wages, factories, small towns being destroyed, workers or anything of that sort. What they care about is quarterly results. We lived by the Earnings Season calendar.

    I remember being in the car with one of them when both Best Buy and Circuit City still existed. We drove by somewhere where there was a BB on one corner and a CC on the other. One or the other parking lot was full and the guy started cheering and yelling at all the cars in the parking lot that their drivers should go spend lots of money. I was appalled and asked what was going on and he said he had whichever store it was in his portfolio and needed it to make a profit.

    I also remember getting into this heated discussion of the morality of buying out small businesses and/or shutting down factories, thus destroying communities that depended on those industries and businesses. The response was completely amoral. The only thing that mattered was the company making money and the quarterly earnings. People, communities, livelihoods, housing values, education–none of it mattered. Those people could and should just move elsewhere and get other jobs. All hail the almighty corporation.

  32. 32
    kindness says:

    It’s not over. Just this chapter. Unions will keep trying to organize the workers as they should.

    Sucks that we end up seeing the kind of world we have. My liberal bubble world wouldn’t understand. I do. Still a bit dumbfounded though.

  33. 33
    another Holocene human says:

    @James E. Powell: But also, they made UAW a code word for nig ger.

  34. 34
    James E. Powell says:

    @another Holocene human:

    But also, they made UAW a code word for nig ger.

    Wasn’t it already? Didn’t the UAW know all about that?

  35. 35
    DTOzone says:

    I think the biggest issue was that the union did not make the case as to why the workers NEEDED them. They were happy with their employer, their pay and their benefits. Why should they trust this entity they have been raised to hate and pay dues to them?

    Unions thrive when the conditions force them to — low pay, no vacation, no benefits, long hours, worker abuse. None of that existed here.

    It would be hard enough if they even had a neutral opinion of unions, but this is the South and they are bred to hate them.

  36. 36
    Bluero says:

    Unions don’t thrive where work conditions are bad. They thrive where people think that they will have power to improve things. When you have a bunch of politician saying they will ruin the company’s bottom line (by ending tax benefits or otherwise) if they choose to join the union. those workers won’t feel any power – whether they like the UAW or not.

    I think it would be interesting to question Corker. Technically, if a company is making plant location decisions purely on the basis of whether a work force is unionized it is violating the NLRA. Since he is, I am sure, a law and order type of guy he should be using his power to investigate this violation of worker protections. At the very least, he should reveal his source.

  37. 37
    Paul in KY says:

    @Violet: How about ‘guilds’?

Comments are closed.