By Chris Brooks
It was a bad sign. On the day voting began at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the shift change suddenly turned blue.
Throngs of workers were passing through the factory turnstiles in both directions, as the day shift ended and the night shift began. On the preceding days, handfuls of union supporters in bright green shirts were there to hand out flyers and banter with their co-workers.
But on Wednesday, instead of bustling union activists, a sea of workers passed quietly through the turnstiles wearing the blue anti-union “One Team: I Am Volkswagen” shirts provided by the company.
Only a few workers were wearing the United Auto Workers shirts. Union supporters were visibly outnumbered by as much as 20 to 1.
This scene was a warning of what was to come. On Friday night, the votes were counted and the union lost in another heartbreaking close vote, 776 yes to 833 no. Ninety-three percent of eligible workers cast ballots.
What went wrong? Most obviously, the 1,700 hourly production workers voting were subject to a brutal employer campaign quite unlike VW’s studied neutral posture in the 2014 drive, which the union lost narrowly.
This time, although Volkswagen continued to claim neutrality, supervisors inside the plant were hell-bent on scaring and cajoling workers into voting no.
Meanwhile outside the plant, workers faced a rerun of the 2014 barrage of pressure. Business-backed astroturf groups flooded the airwaves and television with ads attacking the UAW. The state’s politicians threatened to withdraw support for state incentives tied to an upcoming plant expansion and production of a new electric vehicle.
As terrible as these attacks on workers were, they were also predictable. Why didn’t the union have a plan to defeat them?
Based on conversations with dozens of pro-union workers, it’s clear that the union did not organize a high-participation, in-plant campaign capable of withstanding a strong boss fight.
While the union spent tens of thousands of dollars on radio and television ads, it also had no substantive campaign to bring community pressure on the company. Nor did it attempt to organize and leverage the much smaller number of workers at Volkswagen’s nearby parts suppliers, where a well-placed job action could bring the whole VW plant to a halt.
And while the boss’s anti-union tactics were run-of-the-mill, workers weren’t warned. Inoculation about what to expect, including a sudden “Mr. Nice Guy” act from the company, should be standard in any union drive.
Volkswagen made a U-turn on unionization in 2015 after a costly scandal.
It came out that the company had installed software on 11 million “clean diesel” vehicles, allowing them to pass emissions tests despite pumping out toxic gas up to 40 times beyond the legal limit.
Multiple company executives have since been tried criminally, and the company paid a cumulative $30 billion in fees after various countries brought legal action against it.
The average pay and benefits for workers at the Chattanooga plant are the lowest of any U.S. auto plant, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Automotive Research.
Reeling from the financial wreckage of “dieselgate,” Volkswagen management wanted to keep it that way.
In early April, workers petitioned for a union election. The union hoped for an election by the end of April—but the machinations of the Trump Labor Board delayed the vote until mid-June.
VW had previously hired the notorious union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson to put the brakes on a 2015 election of 160 skilled trades workers. The company refused to bargain with this new bargaining unit, and the case spent years winding through the courts.
Eventually, the UAW abandoned the skilled trades unit—but not before Littler Mendelson used it as the basis for a legal challenge against the new union petition.
The company took full advantage of the extra six weeks to dole out both threats and rewards.
Managers made a series of improvements. They began cooling the plant earlier in the week, changed the wardrobe policy to allow shorts, adjusted the weekly shift schedule from five eight-hour days to four 10-hour days, and booted out multiple managers, including the unpopular plant CEO Antonio Pinto.
The union should have trumpeted these improvements as the first union victories workers had won—look how powerful you are, and you haven’t even gotten to the table yet! It didn’t.
Management also began using mandatory morning meetings as an opportunity to pass out anti-union flyers. Workers who dared to wear pro-union stickers and UAW-branded safety glasses were pressured to take them off, and did. Security guards were sent out to harass workers handing out flyers in the parking lot.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee led his own anti-union meeting in the plant on April 29, the original date that the UAW had hoped the election would be held. Two days later, the newsletter that was read aloud stated that the $50 million incentive deal tied to the plant’s expansion and new electric vehicle line was still “subject to final agreement with Governor Lee’s administration.” Workers took this as a threat.
Supervisors also handed out a flyer insinuating that a vote for the union was a vote to close the plant—a point that CEO Frank Fischer also hammered during all-plant captive-audience meetings he led at the end of May.
Failure to Launch
The company’s anti-union tactics were horrible—but also standard fare. VW behaved the way most U.S. employers do when workers try to organize a union.
Attacks from outside groups and politicians are not so common. But this was round two, and the barrage looked an awful lot like what the union faced during its previous failed effort at this plant. The same thing happened to the UAW’s campaign at Nissan in Mississippi and the Machinists’ campaign at Boeing in South Carolina. At least in the South, we should expect it from now on.
In other words, the UAW is not blameless. The union didn’t build a fighting organization at the shop floor level—which is what it takes to win an election under that kind of pressure.
“There was no organization geared to bringing people together,” said a production worker of seven years, who asked to remain anonymous. “They said if we launch petition campaigns and win on issues, then there would be less demand for a union.
“So it all boiled down to supporting the UAW’s plan, not bringing workers together to support one another.”
The UAW’s strategy hinged on getting a quick election—supporters hoped to vote within a few weeks after filing the petition. This would have minimized the impact from the company and anti-union groups, which were caught off guard.
“Volkswagen had done such a good job screwing up so many areas of the plant that there was a lot of reluctant momentum for a union,” said the same worker, “not because they love the UAW, but because they think a union is the only means to change things for the better.”
But the support wasn’t strong enough to withstand months of heat from the company.
No Escalation Plan
In a strong union campaign, organizers help workers to identify the workplace leaders who others respect most, and recruit them to the organizing committee.
The committee identifies workplace issues that are deeply and widely felt in the plant—like the rampant injuries due to the high turnover and fast line speed—and move co-workers into collective action to start challenging the company.
For instance, during the 2008 UFCW campaign to organize 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Food slaughterhouse in North Carolina, activists used collective action so the union would have a living presence in the plant before it even won the election.
The organizing committee got over 1,000 workers to wear union shirts into the plant. They held public hearings where workers spoke about the harsh conditions in the plant and the injuries they suffered. They built up to a job action where 1,000 workers walked off the job, shut down the lines, and led rallies with the community in front of the plant.
A one-day strike in the livestock department—a chokepoint in the production process that shut the rest of the company down—led to workers winning serious concessions and spurred militancy among the rest of the plant. Activists also led union meetings in the cafeteria during lunch, where workers discussed issues and chanted.
Actions like these help workers build confidence in themselves and in one another, and a sense of collective power. They prove that management and employees do not have the same interests, despite all the “one team” rhetoric—and that the boss doesn’t hold all the cards.
They also provide the organizing committee with a much more realistic assessment of who will vote for the union. It’s one thing to sign a card in the privacy of your living room, or tell an organizer on the phone what he or she wants to hear.
It’s another thing to publicly wear a sticker, hand out flyers in front of the turnstiles, attend a union meeting in the cafeteria during lunch, or sign a petition and go with a group to deliver it to the boss. Someone who does those things is far more likely to sustain their union support under intense pressure.
According to pro-union activists, the UAW believed it had a clear majority committed to vote yes. But those assessments clearly didn’t hold up. Most were based on conversations, not backed up with collective action.
There were a handful of actions, but no systematic campaign. And participation was weak—which sent the wrong message, displaying the union’s vulnerability.
“Some people wear shirts and buttons and stickers, but it’s not anywhere close to the numbers of people who signed cards,” said assembly line worker Mark Dougherty in an interview weeks before the election.
Multiple organizing committee members told me that the peak action at the plant was when 30 to 40 workers handed out flyers by the front entrance, then walked in together.
Some had hoped to break that record on Tuesday—the day before voting began and the day after the company’s last captive-audience meeting. Only about a dozen workers in UAW shirts showed up.
“People around here get scared. They’re scared of their supervisors. Scared of the plant closing,” said another worker who asked not to be identified because of fear of management retaliation. “Many think it’s the best job they’ve ever had or could get. So I think most people can get scared into not voting.”
Roads Not Taken
After the 2014 election, local organizers and labor activists pointed to another factor that contributed to the union loss: the UAW had no serious campaign to involve the community in the union fight. The same was true this time around.
The only pro-union community event was a rally in downtown Chattanooga, pulled together hastily and despite the UAW’s reluctance. About 70 people showed up. In contrast, management’s “family day” at the plant drew 5,000 people the week before the election.
Public pressure on an employer can be a deterrent, discouraging some of the worst anti-union behavior.
For example, while teachers were getting their organizing drive going at a charter school chain in Chicago, the union quietly approached influential community leaders who had ties to the CEO and board members, and lined up their support.
The day the teachers marched on their principals to announce their union drive publicly, these allies started calling the company with advice: Be reasonable. Don’t go to war. Within a few days, the CEO fired the union-buster he had hired.
At Smithfield, the union got local churches, soccer clubs, and civil rights leaders to show the workers, “We are with you.” It also held public hearings on the abuses of workers, and large public rallies that garnered national media attention. The horrible conditions in the plant became synonymous with the Smithfield brand—hitting the company in its bottom line.
The UAW could have organized a national campaign for solidarity protests at Volkswagen dealerships, informing potential consumers about the company’s environmental scandal and anti-worker record. The scrutiny might have tempered VW’s activities, and the public support might have given workers a boost.
Instead, the union spent nearly $50,000 in radio and television ads to match the aggressive air war from the other side. Driving into the plant, you would pass billboards alternating pro- and anti-union messages. If you turned on your radio, you would hear commercials from both sides. The union even had video messages running on the pumps at gas stations near the plant.
The total effect was deafening; people just wanted it all to end. That’s not the atmosphere that wins union elections.
There was also no attempt to flex workers’ structural power.
Like other foreign-owned automakers, Volkswagen relies on parts suppliers that are clustered near the plant (some are literally a short walk away) to facilitate quick transport. These suppliers don’t warehouse parts; instead they produce them quickly, on demand.
Through this just-in-time production system, foreign automakers have gained a tremendous competitive advantage over the Big Three domestic automakers. The Big Three abandoned such a system because of its one critical vulnerability: it can provide workers with tremendous power over the company.
“There are parts plants that produce the huge bulk of parts for the cars being assembled,” said Joshua Murray, a scholar on corporate power and behavior at Vanderbilt University. “If you shut those plants down, then all of production is affected.”
What if the UAW had started by organizing these parts plants? The number of workers there is much smaller. Collective action there could bring production at the whole Volkswagen plant to a grinding halt and win concessions from the company. The real-life example of effective militancy would do more to inspire Volkswagen workers than a hundred TV commercials ever could.
“What is important for workers to remember is that the union is workers, and it is their leverage in the system that gives them power,” said Murray. “And even if the union leaders don’t know it, you can take action without them.
“Business depends on workers to function, and if you can figure out the most effective way to withhold your cooperation on that, you can beat anybody.”
A Losing Record
The UAW’s continued losses in the South are not a reflection on the workers who live there.
Those losses are the result of highly sophisticated and intense anti-union campaigns by employers, business groups, and politicians.
They are also the result of the unsophisticated, shallow organizing approach of the UAW.
Even if the union had won the election, its weak and conflict-averse organizing approach raises serious questions about whether it could have won a first contract—or a good one.
The UAW should be approaching a union drive like this as the fight of its life. It shouldn’t leave anything to chance. It should fight with the same courage and tenacity as the workers who are organizing.
As the indictments in the Chrysler corruption scandal have revealed, company executives encouraged union leaders to secretly funnel money from the jointly run training center into their own pockets. According to the Department of Justice, the company’s goal was to keep union leaders “fat, dumb and happy.”
The UAW’s long-term commitment to “labor-management partnership” is the parent of not only the festering corruption scandal, but also the union’s toothless and ineffective organizing. Both need to be washed away.
Unfortunately, none of that is likely to happen in the absence of a rank-and-file reform movement to transform the union from the bottom up.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Center for Automotive Research.
A version of this article first appeared at Labor Notes.