Aug 062017

  by Bill Onasch

Nissan Part One

I’m sure all readers have heard about the 2to1 UAW loss in a NLRB election to represent a unit of 3500 workers at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi. The union has filed charges and is contesting the outcome. That’s an important story I will pursue. But to better understand it I want to first deal with its historical context this week and return to Canton in the next WIR.


In competition with other unions, the United Auto Workers has long had thousands of members in the aircraft and farm equipment industries. More recently they have organized university grad students. I pay dues to UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union.

But their bread and butter has always been the most important manufacturing industry in the world’s biggest economy—auto. The UAW was forged in the 1930s as part of the CIO’s turbulent organization of mass production industries that had been largely ignored by AFL craft unions.

This was a time of mass unemployment and success depended on winning sympathy—and often active support–of the jobless. An early turning point in auto industry organizing was the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike initiated and largely led by socialists in the Lucas County Unemployed League. Unionism during that period took on the character of a broad social movement that could advance the interests of all workers.

Often attacked by police and National Guard, they used bold tactics like sit-down strike occupations of the workplace and mass picketing to block plant gates, to compel employer recognition and negotiation. Those tactics were later outlawed by the Supreme Court and the Taft-Hartley Act.

The UAW’s one-time domination in this industry made them arguably the most important U.S. union, a pace-setter in collective bargaining that created the semi-mythical Middle Class. At their 1979 peak, the UAW had nearly 1.5 million members—the lion’s share in auto. Now they have a little more than 400,000.

Today, coming off record sales in the U.S. market, there are only about 900,000 American jobs directly related to the auto industry. There are a number of factors for these dwindling numbers—technology; imported vehicles; and offshoring being the biggest.

From World War II to the late Sixties, the Big Three automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—were the dominant domestic producers of cars and light trucks and there were very few imports. The UAW had national contracts covering all of their production as well as some white collar and professionals. With a wage formula of three percent annual productivity raises plus cost-of-living adjustments secured, the union concentrated on expanding “fringe benefits” such as good pensions with “thirty-and-out” early retirement; comprehensive health insurance including families and retirees; and supplementary unemployment benefits to maintain 90 percent of pay during lay-offs.

Beginning in the mid-Sixties Japanese imports began to fill a niche long neglected by the Big Three—smaller, more fuel efficient cars. Belated initial attempts by American companies to compete in this market were plagued by design, quality, and safety problems.

Soon major Japanese companies like Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and Datsun (later rebranded Nissan) started offering a full line of cars and light trucks. And they began opening so-called “transplants” to build them in the U.S. and Canada. More recently, Korean-based Hyundai/Kia have opened U.S. operations and have become major players. German owned Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen also now build in the USA.

While these “foreign” companies were all unionized in their home countries they were determined to remain “union free” in North America. With the sole exception of a small group of maintenance workers at VW’s Chattanooga factory (more about this later), the UAW has not organized any of the transplants since VW’s short-lived plant producing Rabbits in Pennsylvania in the late Seventies.

The UAW’s early strategy was to defend the Big Three both by promoting Buy American and adopting a Partnership approach to make these global giants “competitive.” This included new working conditions emulating so-called “Japanese” quality production—actually borrowed from 1920s methods at General Electric.

Soon UAW plants started competing with each other to keep jobs—so-called “whip-sawing.” The Big Three began spinning off their parts divisions from the national contracts and even outsourcing work to nonunion companies. And when NAFTA was launched in 1994, the union’s American “partners” began a massive transfer of both parts and assembly work to Mexico. This led to General Motors having more workers in Mexico than in the USA.

That only accelerated the UAW’s concession bargaining—leading to debilitating historic give-backs in the 2007 Big Three national contracts. To relieve the companies “retiree burden,” the union agreed to accept lump sum contributions to establish a retiree insurance trust to be managed by the UAW. Current active workers would keep their wage and pension benefits but all new hires would be paid at half the “legacy” wage and would be enrolled in a much inferior retirement plan. Hardly more than a year later, the new Obama administration dictated further give-backs and plant closings in “managed bankruptcies” at GM and Chrysler. Italian based Fiat acquired ownership of Chrysler.

All this certainly made the Big Three more competitive. But the flip side of the give-back coin was that it made the UAW very noncompetitive in trying to organize the transplants. For eight years, the starting pay for Big Three UAW members was less than what new hires got at foreign owned rivals.

When Volkswagen opened its new plant in Chattanooga the UAW, with some support by the German union at VW, tried to work out a pre-arranged basic agreement and get the company’s consent not to oppose recognition. Anti-union forces in the plant used this to claim that the union was cutting a sweetheart deal without membership input. State politicians threatened to quash promised subsidies to VW if they tried to short-circuit the NLRB process. In the end, the UAW lost the election.

[More on Nissan next week.]


The WIR rarely makes recommendations in local elections. I’m making an exception for a special election this Tuesday, August 8, in Kansas City, Missouri both because we have a number of readers in my hometown–and it also involves issues of national importance.

There are three propositions on the ballot. Two of them concern using legitimate needs for transit improvement to mask “development” schemes by the local ruling class. This is a continuation of scams I dealt with in some depth in a special transit edition of the WIR three years ago.

Question One would prohibit any launch of new streetcar/light rail projects without voter approval. I strongly urge a Yes vote on One.

Question Two would authorize and renew sales taxes to be used for projects like the latest hare-brained scheme of perpetual political gadfly Clay Chastain—a 22-mile rapid rail line from Swope Park to Vivion Road. Two deserves a resounding No.

Question Three is a vote on a city minimum wage ordinance that would incrementally top out at 15 dollars an hour. Like a similar one in St Louis, it would conflict with a bill passed by the Missouri legislature forbidding municipal minimum wage laws. It’s a fight that will ultimately be resolved by the Missouri Supreme Court–and that Court ordered the City to put it on the ballot. It’s important to win a solid majority to advance this Fight for 15—Vote Yes.

In Brief…

* Baseball is the only professional sport I follow but all of us know of the remarkable Williams sisters feats on the tennis courts. Serena’s social perception and sense of solidarity is also revealed in a Guardian article that begins, “Serena Williams, one of the highest paid and most successful athletes in the world, has issued a stirring call for Black women to demand equal pay and spoken about the racism she has faced ‘on and off the tennis court.’ In a personal essay published by Fortune to coincide with Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the tennis superstar said the gender pay gap ‘hits women of color the hardest,’ as they suffer from both gender and racial financial disparity. For every dollar earned by men in the US, Williams said, Black women earn 63 cents, and 17% less than white women.”

* Safer in Dubai than London. I wouldn’t have chosen the name Torch Tower for the residential skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building in Dubai, UAE. The photos of flames appearing to engulf it were horrifying reminders of the Grenfell Tower in London. Like Grenfell, the Torch’s facade was cladded with the same panels that fueled the London blaze killing dozens and leaving hundreds homeless. But unlike Grenfell, the Dubai building was equipped with sprinkler systems and pressurized fire escape stairs that prevented any injuries and mostly limited damage to the exterior. Meanwhile in Britain, 111 high-rise buildings using the Grenfell cladding have failed tests conducted by an independent safety panel.

That’s all for this week.

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