By Noel Ignatiev
By now everybody who pays attention to this sort of thing is aware that the United Auto Workers Union lost an election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee in which it sought to become the bargaining agent for the workers there. The result is being lamented across the “Left,” with gloomy predictions for what it portends for other car manufacturing plants in the south, particularly Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, where the UAW is engaged in a similar effort.
The Chattanooga election was close, 712 to 626, with an 89% turnout. “Left” pundits are blaming the outcome mainly on the interference of rightwing Republican politicians, who stoked up workers’ fears of Chattanooga becoming another Detroit, where high wages for autoworkers were ultimately responsible for the collapse of the auto industry and the bankruptcy of the city. One prominent “Left” commentator declared that by voting “no” the workers gave up their chance to bargain collectively and have a voice in determining their working conditions. (I worked in UAW plants for years, and never felt the UAW gave me a voice; the only voice I and other workers had was a result of our actions outside of, and often against, the union—wildcat strikes, sabotage, slowdowns, etc. As for bargaining collectively, the union officials negotiated a contract with the Company, and that was that.)
Union and “left” activists have vowed to intensify their efforts to convince the workers in Mississippi to vote “yes,” and have petitioned for a new election in Chattanooga, where they hope for a different outcome next time. (It has long been a UAW tradition that the cure for democracy is more democracy: that is, if the workers voted to reject a contract, the union held another vote, and another, until the workers finally voted right. This technique will be applied to getting the UAW certified as the bargaining agent.)
One inconvenient fact that most Leftists have preferred not to discuss is that, unlike in 1936 when union activists faced spies, gun thugs, injunctions and police, and got the union only by occupying the Chevy plant in Flint, Michigan for six weeks, VW wanted the union and its collateral “works councils” [not to be confused with a workers’ council], an arrangement that had stabilized and made their unionized, higher-paid workers in Germany more productive. (With exquisite irony, VW officials in Germany have threatened to build no more VW plants in the States unless the workers vote to admit the union.) No surprise, since UAW officials “consistently maintain that the union’s combative past is behind it and now say the cooperative ‘works council model is in line with the UAW’s successful partnerships with the domestic automakers and its vision of the 21st century union.’ Those partnerships led the UAW to become an early adopter of the two-tier wage model, at the Big Three in 2007, and to give up pensions for new hires in that contract” (Jane Slaughter, Labor Notes Feb. 11, 2014).
The union lost by 86 votes. A shift of 45 votes from “no” to “yes” would have had union supporters celebrating instead of lamenting. To think that 45 votes could mark the difference between victory and defeat is to acknowledge that the UAW has become nothing more than an agency, similar to the state employment service. To think that 45 votes could make a difference in the confrontation with a global corporation is to take leave entirely of reality.
Of all the dogmas that infect radicals, the most widespread and pernicious is the dogma of the backwardness of the workers. Working-class people always have good reasons for what they do, including voting not to affiliate with the UAW.
Let us take a look at the past: In 1919, 365,000 workers in the steel industry went out in a nation-wide strike led by a coordinating committee of twenty-four AFL unions headed by the later Communist W.Z. Foster. In the course of the strike, twenty-two workers were killed, hundreds beaten and shot, thousands arrested and a million-and-a-half people made hungry. The strike committee admitted defeat after three months. One of the factors that led to the defeat was the action of black workers in crossing the picket lines. Probably they did so for more than one reason, but one factor that certainly played a part was the refusal of most of the twenty-four striking unions to accept them on terms of equality. Were those black workers backward? I don’t think so: Through their actions in the 1919 steel strike, they showed their determination to join the union as complete equals or not join at all; they were every bit as heroic and acted every bit as much in the interests of the working class as those workers who struck. They were not “backward”; they were posing a challenge to white labor, a challenge which, unfortunately it did not meet.
I do not wish to suggest that the issues are being posed in the same way in Chattanooga. (I have not seen information on this matter, but I would not be surprised to learn that a higher proportion of black workers than white voted for the UAW.) Let me offer another example, less obviously charged: in a recent strike of utility workers in New York City, one radical strike supporter was dismayed to see workers on the picket line (which was mainly symbolic and not really intended to shut down the utility) greeting low-level supervisors who were entering the plant. How could they be so backward, he asked, as to be friendly with those who are “scabbing” on them? How indeed? In my view, what those workers were saying with their actions was that they knew that the strike wasn’t much, that they would sit around the picket line for a few weeks before it was settled, and then would go back to work as they did before, with conditions maybe a bit worse. (That is what happened.) In that situation, why should they break friendships with low-level supervisors, most of whom had been workers like themselves and some of whom they had known for decades, to enact a ritual of a “conflict” that was no conflict at all.
I would guess that in Chattanooga those who voted “no” are probably no different from those who voted “yes.” They all know that it will take lot more than a union in one locale to address their fundamental condition. Whether they put it in words, they all know that it will take a worldwide movement of the downtrodden. The problem is, they do not believe such a movement is possible, or else they think that if it is it will disappoint them as have so many in the past. Why should they take a step that promises them little and may jeopardize what little they have? As a consequence they fall back into passivity or even conservatism.
The revolutionary movement is not the outgrowth of reform struggles but their negation. It will enlist those for whom nothing less than a total change is worth fighting for, including many who may be deaf to the appeals of reform. When a struggle breaks out that poses the possibility of a new world, the people who voted “no” may very well be in the forefront. It is a mistake to attach importance to how people voted in this election (or any other).
One of the most damaging effects of this sort of certification campaign is that it tends to divide the workers into hostile camps based on how they voted. Maybe I am being too pessimistic; maybe the workers, with the unfailing good humor and sense of reality that characterizes their class, will understand that this election was no Civil War, which set brother against brother in a righteous cause, and that it didn’t mean doodly-squat.
If I were part of a national revolutionary organization (which I am not) and if I knew people at the VW plant in Chattanooga (which I do not), I would do what I could to make it possible for the workers who voted “yes” and the workers who voted “no” and the workers who didn’t vote (some of whom may be the wisest of all) to talk calmly with each other, away from all leftwing and rightwing advisors who want to tell them what is best for them, and see if they can figure a way out of the mess we are all in.