by Bill Onasch
It was supposed to be a lead pipe cinch. United Auto Workers president Bob King, with the backing of fellow union bureaucrats in Germany, convinced Volkswagen America that it would be in their interest to have a German-style Works Council in their Chattanooga plant.
A Works Council requires a union. Today’s UAW is not the same union VW dealt with when they built Rabbits in Pennsylvania 35 years ago. No more confrontation, King’s UAW is all about the shared interests of partnership.
VW couldn’t simply designate the UAW as the union participant in the new Council. Since the Obama administration never delivered on their 2008 card-check pledge, the union needed to be certified as a bargaining agent through an NLRB election. In preparation for this process the company and union negotiated a Neutrality Agreement that granted the UAW access to VW workers while management refrained from anti-union captive audience meetings that have become the norm in representation elections. VW issued a public neutrality declaration as well and asked outside third parties to mind their own business. The Agreement also contained commitments from the union about bargaining for a contract if they won Labor Board certification–which I’ll come back to.
This is as good a scenario as union organizers could hope for and they quickly signed up a majority of VW workers. Most experts expected the union would win and started speculating about the prospects of the UAW organizing Mercedes and BMW plants in the South along the same lines.
But, as should have been anticipated, there were powerful outside third parties who considered the encroachment of even meek unionism in the Volunteer State to be their business. Prominent Republican office holders, assisted by a billboard campaign furnished by Carl Rove, warned that the UAW would bankrupt Chattanooga just as they had Detroit. Convincing threats of denying future government incentives for expansion to a unionized VW plant also had a chilling effect. Undoubtedly some votes were swayed by this last minute fear mongering.
But that alone wasn’t what sunk the UAW boat. In my opinion, the union bureaucracy had sewn their own seeds of failure.
Historically, workers seek unions to better their wages, benefits, and working conditions. The UAW for decades was the pace setter for what came to be called Middle Class jobs–but those days are long gone. Especially since the historic 2007 Big Three contract surrender–later enhanced by bankruptcy terms imposed by President Obama at General Motors and Chrysler–Solidarity House has focused on just the opposite.
Through big concessions, the UAW has succeeded in making their core employers competitive with transplant rivals. But the flip side of these give-backs is that the workers in the transplants now get wages and benefits competitive with UAW workers–in fact, sometimes better. One of the conditions of the Neutrality Agreement committed the UAW to “maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages,” that the company “enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America including but not limited to legacy automobile manufacturers.” Legacy refers to the UAW organized Big Three.
This commitment to the company to make competitive advantage supreme law was made by King without any consultation with VW workers. It is little different than the sweetheart deals former SEIU president Andy Stern used to cook up with CEOs. It became the main issue of the in-plant vote no forces and had more impact on votes than any politician threats.
The inconvenient truth is the UAW, under its present mis-leadership helping the boss to hold down labor costs, has little to offer to the unorganized. I’m frankly surprised there were so many votes for the union (626 for, 712 against, 89 percent voting). The only hopeful sign in this disaster is that so many had the foresight to recognize that a bad union that can be changed for the good is better than no union at all.
This humiliating defeat in Chattanooga is a fresh confirmation that give-backs to the boss not only fail to maintain existing jobs–they can also doom efforts to organize what is now an unorganized majority in a once virtually all union industry.
And Now For Something Completely Different…
On the other side of the union spectrum is National Nurses United. Their mission is clear: serve the interests of patients and nurses even when this means conflict with their employers. A recent example is their ongoing fight with Affinity Medical Center in Massillon, Ohio.
Affinity is part of Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, now the nation’s largest hospital chain. Affinity has steadfastly refused to bargain with the NNU since the union won a representation election in August, 2012. They not only fired Ann Wayt, a respected nurse leader on trumped up charges–they also asked the state to revoke her nursing license. Anyone complaining was threatened with the same treatment.
In addition to legal action, the union mobilized members in protest inside and out and also obtained statements of support from the town’s Mayor and Senator Sherrod Brown. Last week when Ann Wayt returned to work she was greeted with bag-pipes and showered with flowers. A judge had ordered the company to reinstate her and withdraw its complaint to the licensing agency. The same ruling directed Affinity to show up February 21 to bargain in good faith for a first union contract.
This is not yet the end of the war declared by Affinity on their nurses by any means. But this latest victory for solidarity and adversarial unionism may prove to be decisive. It’s another Hats Off moment for the NNU.
Ready to Get the Worm
I signed up in plenty of time to get the now expired Early Bird registration for the April 4-6 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago. I’ve also booked my senior discount coach seat on Amtrak, reserved my hotel, and paid for half of a Conference literature table for kclabor.org. I thank those readers who chipped in with donations to help offset these expenses.
About 1500 attended the last one and I suspect this will be the biggest LN Conference yet. I know the Amalgamated Transit Union will be sending a delegation of impressive size. If you haven’t yet made plans to go I urge you to do so if you can.
Before the 2012 Conference I expressed the hope that the agenda would include substantial education and discussion about two over-arching issues: environmental destruction–above all, climate change, and a Labor Party to challenge the presently uncontested political rule of bosses and bankers. In an overall very positive post-Conference article I had to note that didn’t happen.
No agenda schedule for the upcoming Conference has yet been published. I’m renewing my suggestion to the planners of this year’s gathering. More than ever, we need a serious discussion in the workshops and plenaries about how to build working class environmental and political movements that can be an integral part of what we do in the workplace and community movements.
* Pete Camarata, a pioneer in the movement for democracy and militant action in the Teamsters, recently passed away at the age of 67. Substantial obituaries appeared in the New York Times and Socialist Worker.
* Coral Davenport opens a New York Times story, “The sign is ubiquitous on city buses around the country: ‘This bus runs on clean burning natural gas.’ But a surprising new report, to be published Friday in the journal Science, concludes that switching buses and trucks from traditional diesel fuel to natural gas could actually harm the planet’s climate. Although burning natural gas as a transportation fuel produces 30 percent less planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions than burning diesel, the drilling and production of natural gas can lead to leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”
* In a February 10 posting on the Labor Notes site Ajamu Dillahunt reported, “Tens of thousands of marchers took to the streets of Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday to show their opposition to the extreme right-wing agenda that has gripped the state since the Tea Party gained control of the legislature and governor’s office…Unions and labor groups joined in with spirited delegations. United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 150, Food and Commercial Workers, Teamsters, and Farm Labor Organizing Committee had the most notable groups.”
* Commenting on a rash of accidents involving coal, oil, and natural gas last week Jamie Henn of 350.org said, “The fossil fuel industry is like a giant robot at the end of a horror movie—falling to pieces and lashing out as it strains for ever more resources. The latest string of disasters bolds and italicizes a basic fact: fossil fuels aren’t safe. Not for our communities, not for our environment, and certainly not for our climate. It’s time politicians to stand up and reject catastrophes like the Keystone XL pipeline and start promoting things that don’t blow up or leak, like solar panels and wind turbines.”
In observance of the Federal holiday tomorrow there will be no news update on our companion Labor Advocate blog. Normal schedule resumes Tuesday.
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