America is where class struggle gets derailed by culture wars. It’s happened throughout our history. It happened again last week in Chattanooga.
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 relations.
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 them.
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.