When Culture Eclipses Class

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. 


You say, "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."

Whoa. That's a stereotype; in another time those Scots-Irish individualists were the backbone of the UMW in Central Appalachia. They've never been "individualists"; as a former colleague of mine (himself an Appalachian white) once said, "They're as clannish as all getout." You really need to dig deeper, into the problematic history of unions in the South, to understand what's going on. If people have never seen a union that's been effective in protecting them, it's a lot easier to scare them off.

Yeah right- thats why unions have been on the decline for decades and Yankees have been flocking to the South in droves, because we just dont get it. We rubes just dont know what is good for us!

The one fact that has been repeated to me by all the Yankees I actually hire is that the union system is inherently UNFAIR. It rewards seniority above all, and allows unproductive workers to stay in place despite their sometimes brazen laziness. I recently spoke to a formerly unionized brick mason that it was not unusual for he and his peers to lay 15-20 bricks A DAY!!! And the "rust belt" wonders why no one builds anything there anymore.

I'm not sure its worth noting that the author struggles so hard to find something to blame for the UAW failure other than the unions themselves. Praising the union movement of 50-100 years ago is nice and perhaps Democrats were nice back then as well. Not so today for either. Let's put it simply. Unions spend the vast bulk of their dues income supporting left wing politicians. So, why should any worker who is not a Democrat want to pay dues? Especially, one would think, if conservatives believe the Democrats are ruining the economy if not the republic itself? The author begrudgingly admits that VW treats its workers well, but finds some cultural element that is essentially some code word for racist southerners combined with hillbilly rednecks to blame. Blame is what this author and so many liberals are all about. However, its become increasingly clear that liberals are not, well, liberal any more in the classic sense of the word. They are certainly not tolerant, as any reader of the comments sections of any website will tell you. It is not the conservatives who use the words pathetic, racist, delusional, obstructionist, or my favorite sexual aberrant appellation, tea baggers. Now, that's such an interesting insult or label that a majority of liberal commenters use daily. The Democrats support gay everything, yet their biggest insulting name-calling is to accuse the right of sucking someone's testicles. Really, really odd. Not exactly the tolerance that liberals used to actually have, is it? Liberals everywhere from the streets to the schools to the workplace have put in rules that prevent speech they do not like. Not an example of tolerance. Not any more than this author in such thinly veiled disguise suggests is the real reason for the UAW failing. It failed, according to the author, because the workers were stupid, redneck southerners and, what do you expect. from such ignorant, low class people, but the wrong decision.

Unions CANNOT spend the majority of dues money "supporting left wing politicians." Both the labor laws and the values of union members prohibit the use of ANY dues money for political purposes, not that there are any funds left over after performing the union's legitimate bargaining and grievance fighting functions. I was a member of a CWA local in Florida for three years, so I speak from experience, not hearsay or Fox. The union used NONE of our dues money for political purposes. Instead, we were allowed to make additional cash contributions at union meetings to the political education fund, either as outright donations or by buying chances in a drawing.

Another lie about unions is the designation of "bosses" for elected officers. The fact is that officers are often forced to pay expenses out of pocket on union business travel, because actual shortage of funds combined with the natural stinginess of members who work very hard for their wages often results in less money voted for these purposes than necessary. These hard working volunteers can hardly be called "bosses." But the people who run the companies, who actually ARE bosses by definition (and many of them ACT "bossy" as well), are never referred to by that derogatory term by conservatives. This is a glaring double standard.

Another lie is that unions encourage and protect laziness. This may once have been true in some industries (and in the classie "cost-plus" defense contracts, MANAGEMENT encouraged inefficiency because it got a bigger payment from the military, which I witnessed on a summer job in the 1960s!), but today, unions know that their contracts do not exempt workers from being judged on productivity, and so they take up the mantle that parents and schools have often dropped, teaching the millennial generation the work ethic needed to prevent company discipline. Unions do take up grievances when a worker is being UNJUSTLY disciplined, but every meeting has several reiterations of the "sermon" to stay off cell phones, keep taking calls, be polite but efficient, read scripts exactly, etc. etc. Incidentally, in this particular local in the right-to-work-for-less South, with African Americans in the majority (but white people treated with equal respect), invocations at the start of meetings included prayers to protect the hard working people in the union and inspire the members to work hard and take their jobs seriously.

The reason seniority is emphasized in many contract employment situations is to avoid either positive or negative favoritism by managers, who would otherwise give raises and promotions to those whose actual work does not merit it, or withhold them from employees who have earned them, on the basis of personal feelings. This does not mean that quality and productivity are not rewarded; unions try as hard as possible to ensure that ALL members meet standards high enough to produce value for the customers. And union job environments do not involve jobs where "outstanding" merit is significant, only those where the minimum requirements are high, but "excess" skill is redundant. Therefore, the only truly fair way to pay workers who are all producing identical products is to reward time spent contributing good performance, measured objectively.

I work in a unionized shop, and from my direct experience the union serves no other purpose but to pander to the lowest common denominator. People who long ago should have been fired walk around our shop and flout their consistently sub par work ethos with impunity. A unionized shop is a breeding ground for the lazy and the corrupt. Much in the same way that our failed prison system creates better criminals, unionized shops create lazier employees with a victim mentality and a understanding how to play politics rather than work. Anyone that knows the history of the unions knows that UAW was most certainly the cause of the failure of the big three. When all the profit from the product a company makes goes into paying the pension plan of the union, how can a company hope to stay competitive on a world market? Anyone who is intellectually honest knows that unions once served a great purpose in our society when the deck was stacked steeply against the worker. But times have changed radically and the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Most of the victories won by the unions have been codified into law anyhow. And, as was recently evidenced in Wisconsin, most American workers (not just those horribly ignorant southern "whites" to whom that the racist author refers), when given a chance, will opt out of a union. Nice try Meyerson, but unions have proven to be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to the American economy. Southern workers are doing just fine.

Aside from the absurd stereotyping of the South (as one has already noted - hillbillies in the UMW were individualists?), there is the nonsense about the UAW's liberalism. Walter Reuther was liberal, in the old-fashioned anti-communist sense that many conservatives today would be happy to work with. However, in the South, the UAW units were quite often as bigoted and pro-segregation as anyone and departed from Reuther's liberalism with all the gusto of Bull Connor and sometimes every bit as violently. Please, spare us these morality tale excuses. Despite pressures from BOTH union and employer, you want us to believe these workers were tricked into bowing to a bunch of pols writing editorials about Civil War battles? It might just be, though so hard for people on the left to imagine, the workers thought for themselves that they did not like what they knew about the UAW and wanted no part of it. Occam's razor, friend. Stop looking past your own eyes for answers.

Retiring West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller also commented recently about the fatalism of the Scots-Irish in his remarks about the water pollution in his state which many citizens refused to lay at the feet of energy interests. It's so much a part of Southern Appalachian culture that its roots are almost undetectable. (No accident that Darwin was voted down here.) I thought the anti-union sentiment in the South would disappear once jobs could no longer be racially segregated, but that hasn't happened. Workers in the mountain south are still loathe to defy their employers, and Corker knew right where to apply the pressure.

What about the anti-union sentiment in Wisconsin? Since the option to freely decide for themselves, those (apparently fatalistic) Scandinavians have been leaving the unions in droves. http://watchdog.org/95888/public-union-membership-plummets-two-years-after-wi-act-10/ I daresay your causality is a bit mixed up. It's not some visceral genetic adherence to the power paradigm that prevents people in the south from openly embracing Jimmy Hoffa's little club of corruption. It's common sense and an ability process empirical evidence. Anyone paying attention can see that unions = the death of an industry. Unions no longer serve the interests of the working individual, but rather their own perpetuation. There may be some place for unions in American industry, but things need to change radically. Starting with giving people the OPTION to unionize. By forcing it down their throats, its obvious exactly what is the objective. THAT union needs to go away and never come back.

Why everybody hates unions:

youtube (dot) com/watch?v=Y33Tyj2s6Oo

(Watch WDIV-TV follow around Ford union g00ns loafing on the job. Funny as hell.)

Bottom line: Workers want good paying jobs, they don't want to bleed their company dry. That's why they told the union to pound salt.

So, basically, Meyerson's analysis is that the culture of the South is just "wrong" (with an implication of racist), while the culture of NYU grad students and TAs is ever so correct. (BTW, why is the UAW representing university employees? I guess it's an indication of how desperate it has become for members.)

Good insight into the culture not only in the south, but with Republicans since Reagan. The young worked and voted for President Obama, but are discouraged not only from being a "lost" generation without a working future, but the President's corporate appointments and general actions favoring both multi-national corporations and big banks with questionable reputations. Democrats are often Republican-lite. Until we have someone in politics with commitments to workers, jobs, the environment and an honest financial system, we will be consumed by the Kochs and their friends on the Supreme Court and in the gerrymandered House. Republicans made their bed when they grabbed the south after Democrats supported integration and civil rights. None of what they support is sustainable beyond cheap labor, regulate nothing, give everyone a gun and allow the crazies unlimited speech. Republicans bow to billionaire power over the country. We are sold out, but perhaps there is hope. The massive unregulated pollution, earthquakes from fracking and numbers of poor in the red states will cause them trouble. Fortunately Germany is advanced in their apprentice programs, open to elective unions and treat their workers better than the average US company. VW may be a good model for those who go crazy when the word "union" or workers' rights are mentioned.

"we will be consumed by the Kochs and their friends on the Supreme Court and in the gerrymandered House."

This boilerplate leftism is really laughable. Koch Industries actually has a lot of fairly well-paid union workers in its plants in the South. Yet somehow we have to drag the Kochs in to explain why workers in Tennessee chose to go against both company and union in a VW plant the Kochs have nothing to do with? How could you come up with anything more non-sequitor than this notion? By the way, LillithMc, on the latest OpenSecrets.org list, Koch Industries is 59th among top donors to candidates and parties 1989-2012, Among the top fifteen donors are TEN unions (UAW is number 8), every one of which gave nearly all its money to Democrats (and what was left to those further to the left than Democrats). UAW alone gave $41 million compared to the Kochs' $18 million - to say nothing of the unpaid donations it provides in the form of picketers, poll workers, etc., etc. You mean to tell me somehow the Kochs still prevailed with 700 workers in down there in Chattanooga? My, my, how do they do it?

Koch is a general name for the billionaires who own Republicans, their fans and those who are brainwashed to work cheap for them without the ability to organize for their own benefit. Cheap labor is the goal of the Kochs and all their friends. They have no respect for workers. Look at Scott Walker who is a true Koch-owned robot.

"Anti-union activists repeatedly attacked the UAW as a nest of thugs and a den of liberals. They got half of that right." Half? No, I think the UAW is a den of liberals, too.

"...though the UAW, like most unions with blue-collar members, has largely steered clear of gun control issues...", but not because it actually, you know, opposed liberal attempts to confiscate the guns, but because it knew even it's few remaining members did.

Among us southerners, and especially among us certified East Tennessee hillbillies, politeness and respectful behavior are still expected, especially toward those with whom we disagree. But the ignorance, cultural arrogance and general cluelessness about southerners, and especially about us descendants of Scottish, Irish and English peasants, displayed by the author of this worthless piece of junk journalism make it very, very difficult to withhold the insults it deserves. Mr. Meyerson, before making even more of an ass of yourself, come on down and live among us for a while, put aside your sadly mistaken preconceived notions and open that hermetically-sealed mind or yours, and perhaps you will discover why the good people of Chattanooga aren't foolish enough to listen to the siren song of the misguided ideology to which you are in thrall. Or maybe not. Someone who still believes in Marxist class struggle isn't likely to be able to understand.

Culture matters, class and race do not. From culture comes what is productive. Or not. Neither race nor class divide in that fashion: about what matters not who matters.

THAT is America - what matter matters and who matters does not.

KUDOS to UAW for opening doors. Brickbats for destroying firms and jobs.

"failed to realize that the company’s conduct had been largely shaped by influence that IG Metall"

Maybe IG M... should have tried to Unionize us.....because we see Detroit-UAW connection. In our shop we have voted the union down 3 times in 20 years, they somehow get our cards "signed" every few years and start asking for another election.....

Volkswagen wanted this and continue to advocate for workers' councils.



There is a body of law governing the German concept of the works council:


This summary doesn't state that labor MUST be represented by a labor union. At first reading, it appears that such a council could be organized like a condominium board, with legal rights and obligations but with volunteer leadership. I appreciate that from the German worldview this requires the UAW, but on the ground in Chattanooga it may be a lot easier to execute without them.

Sorry to get in on this late. I live in Atlanta, I was born here, and I've always lived in the south. Where is this White South you are talking about? Do you mean white like Minnesota and Wisconsin are white? The census says that those states are 82 and 83% white, while my native Georgia is 55%. Tennessee has 17% black population, as opposed to a national average of 13%. Are there secret places - maybe you find them using racist code words - that are white, and they're called the White South?

The article refers to a "handful" of black employees. How much is that exactly? If 17% of the plant were black, that would be 256. Are you privy to the employment records at VW, and you can tell us whether they have more or less than proportional employment?

Other than as fodder for your disdain and a source of cheap labor for your Passats, what good is this part of the country to you? I mean, we're just dragging you down! Our ACA signups are way off, our acceptance of gay marriage 20 years behind the civilised world, it's too hot and the people talk funny. Why don't you just cut your losses and break up with us? It's clear things aren't working out. It was great when we started out, and we managed to get through our separation period, but really, now that we're both mature, shouldn't we face facts? We won't blame you. It's the sensible thing to do, really. We have just grown too far apart.

If it helps, you can keep Florida. It was always more close to you anyway.

Take TEXAS with you, and Alabama too.

I disagree. The real class war, middle vs. the poor, continues in full force, with the support of the Dem Congress. This is the class war that lib media won't touch since Dems and media are dependent on middle class consumers and campaign donors. This isn't the first time in our history when the richest few took control, to the harm of the country. Each time, the poor and middle class, workers and the jobless, united to push back, to everyone's benefit. That can't happen this time, since we were deeply pitted against each other. Workfare labor continues to replace other workers, at a fraction of the wages. In America today, class determines everything.

I was a union member for my working career, and I saw the good and the bad of union representation. From my observation and service, because I did function as a representative for a short period the good out weighed the bad. True unions from that era sometimes protected the lazy and advanced the incompetent. That may have been the biggest flaw in the union I belonged to. Still the union won the forty hour week, health care, paid vacation, and a couple of times most likely saved me my job when I told supervisors they were stupid and assholes. So now the pendulum is swing back the other way, and as long as capital is benevolent and shares the wealth there is no need for any union. As to the big three, actually on two of the three went bankrupt, the onus should be shared with managers who failed to fund overly generous retirement plans. Much the same goes for government that has been too generous, and failed to fund retirement and health plans. Unions are not blameless, but poor management must shoulder part of the blame too. I followed the link to the editorial, and could only wonder why the author did not rebut the op-ed as to why Volkswagen abandoned it's U.S. operations in the 80's. Seems to me that Volkswagen was struggling everywhere, poor products poor management during that era. Regardless of how you feel about unions the fact is that when unions were strongest the middle class was prosperous, now with the decline of unions the middle class is disappearing, income inequality is approaching 1920's levels and capital is ascendant. Capital has done a good job of painting unions as evil, and it is evident in the comments I read that they continue to spread their vitriol, but as I said earlier Union have done their part to sully themselves.

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