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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

UAW has a strategy to win battle of the century

Welcome to Team Tuesday!


Last fall, the United Auto Workers (UAW), under new leader Shawn Fain, launched a wildly audacious attempt to organize thirteen non-union auto companies in the South, after winning their strike against the Big Three.  They include plants for Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Mazda, Rivian, Lucid, Volvo, and Tesla.

This month, the UAW announced that 30 percent of the workers at Hyundai’s factory in Montgomery, AL, have signed union cards, joining the workers at the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, AL, and the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, TN, which has reached 50%.


If they succeed, it will be the biggest union victory in at least a century.  It won’t be easy, for sure.  But taking the fight to Southern states like this is exactly what we need to see. I always say, the best defense is a good offense!  We’ll take a look at what the UAW is doing and why it’s so important.


Unions: Key Power Source for Progressives, Public Enemy #1 For The Right


The right believes unions are a “financing mechanism” for Democrats. Their corporate sponsors generally don’t want limits on their power vis a vis workers.  They’re aware that voter turnout is generally higher where unions are strong, not to mention that strong unions have the power to make policy demands in exchange for their support.


On the Practical Radicals podcast last week, right-wing strategy scholar Alex Hertel-Fernandez discussed what happened after the right took control of many state legislatures in 2010.


At that moment – which they’d been working toward for decades - the right was out to cripple the left forever.  They went after a couple of our key sources of power:  voting rights and unions.  Unions were at the very top of their shit list.


An example: Here in Wisconsin, within six weeks of taking office in 2011, GOP Gov. Scott Walker proposed Act 10. The law effectively ended collective bargaining for most public unions by allowing them to bargain solely over base wage increases no greater than inflation. It also disallowed the automatic withdrawal of union dues, required annual recertification votes for unions, and forced public workers to pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits.  It was designed to be a death blow.  The right also took the fight to Michigan, another Midwest union stronghold.  They have even proposed a national right-to-work law, which would make it impossible for unions anywhere to collect dues.


The pendulum has begun to swing back toward unions, after a dark decade plus.  We see a renewed focus on rank-and-file leadership, organizing, and winning strategy. The Hot Labor Summer of 2023, with strikes from UAW, the actors’ union (SAG-AFTRA) and the Writers Guild, resulted in big wins.  


Why Unions Are So Important


The fact that the GOP has turned its back on its old “country club” base, and now touts itself as the party of the working class, could make the battle over unions an existential one for them.  How can they be the party of the working class while keeping their boot on our necks? 


Remember when Joe Biden went to the UAW picket line, and Donald Trump went to a non-union car parts maker to urge the UAW to endorse him?  That’s a cognitive dissonance that seems unsustainable, as union and non-union workers alike become more militant, and the belief that they can win continues to grow.


The GOP-dominated states of the Deep South (and its border states like TN) have long been a “red wall” against union expansion, not only because of anti-union laws, but because their top elected officials are often very public and active in their opposition to union drives.  They use their non-union status as a recruitment tool for business.

Why The South Is So Important


The GOP dominance has led to a host of problems for Southerners, especially people of color.  In addition to wrecking state governments’ ability to serve the people, it has led to a “red wall” in the Senate. It wasn’t always this way, but today they are very united in denying almost all national progressive initiatives.


This comes down, at least in part, to a deep-rooted elitist culture that’s been in place since slave lords gained power before the American Revolution.  It’s not just white supremacy, but a belief that the gentry deserves a life of leisure, and everyone else is really just there to serve them.  There are political dynasties in the South who are literally descended from the slave lords.


Whether the elite can ever be pried out of power there is an open question.  But mounting a real challenge to the slave lords – and building solidarity among Black and white workers – would erode the GOP hold over the Deep South.  It's the kind of victory that can lead to bigger wins in the future.


The UAW Strategy

The plan, UAW President Shawn Fain has said, is to announce worker affiliations at the factories when they reach 30 percent of the workforce, to hold public rallies and begin intense organizing when they reach 50 percent, and to file for NLRB recognition elections when they reach 70 percent.  This is a smart way to build momentum and make winning seem inevitable.

This type of strategy has worked for the union before.  As Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect points out, “In 1937, the success of the union’s 44-day sit-down occupation of General Motors’ factories in Flint, Michigan—which compelled GM to recognize the union and sign a contract with it—prompted a wave of sit-downs… fear that the wave could wash over their own factories made Chrysler, U.S. Steel, and other major corporations agree to unionization within weeks of the victory at Flint.”

As Luis Feliz Leon in TAP notes, the other side sees this battle as “existential”… “The left wants Tennessee so bad, because if they get us, the Southeast falls, and it’s game over for the republic,” said state Rep. Scott Cepicky last year in leaked audio from a closed-door meeting of the Tennessee House Republican Caucus.”  If only.


Organizing and Community Solidarity

The opposition— “an unholy trinity of company bosses, state politicians, and Washington front groups” —has come out with guns blazing. But the UAW has learned from two earlier failed campaigns at Volkswagen in Chattanooga.  See Leon’s article for details on the past failures. 

This time, organizing is being driven by workers inside the plant.  They have both a “group really out front passing out handbills,” and a “quiet group” talking to workers one on one.

This time, the UAW is working closely with other unions, community-based organizations, churches, and racial justice organizations that have been building organizing infrastructure in Tennessee for years. In December, Fain accompanied a delegation of community and faith leaders as they delivered a letter calling on Volkswagen management to end its union busting. 

Veteran labor organizer Gene Bruskin, who led a successful union campaign at a Smithfield pork processing plant in North Carolina in 2008, said one of the key aspects of the union victory at Smithfield was organizers associating the company’s brand with its treatment of workers inside the plant.  “To the degree that the broad community support for workers is public and the company’s brand is identified with oppressing workers, that is essential for getting the company’s attention,” Bruskin said. “That combined with a strong inside campaign, done properly, is almost undefeatable.”

It helps that VW is doing great financially, and launching new products out of Chattanooga.  They won’t close the factory because of union organizing.

If the UAW can organize any of these companies, it will inspire workers and progressives everywhere. It will put the right on notice. And with any luck, it will help Democrats and progressives believe we can win in the South



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