VOICES: A plan for UAW success in the South

uaw_logo.jpgBy Joe Atkins, Labor South

Back in May 2009, I wrote Cindy Estrada (now vice president) of the United Auto Workers a letter in response to her request for input about what might help the union to attain a stronger foothold in the South. The UAW's recent unveiling of a plan to devote $60 million toward organizing the South and Midwest prompted me to pull my letter back out of the files and see how much of it might still apply. A lot, I believe.

UAW President Bob King, speaking to Labor Notes, recently compared the new campaign to poker, saying it is the same as an "all-in-hand. If we lose, we'll die quicker. If we win, we rebuild the UAW."

Like the labor movement as a whole, the UAW is in a fight for survival. Just 350,000 workers carry a UAW card today, compared to 1.5 million in 1979. Across the movement, union membership is just 11.9 percent of the nation's workforce, a drop from 12.3 percent in 2009.

The big, potentially fatal thorn in the UAW's side is the foreign-owned, non-unionized transplant in the South -- Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes. The UAW's agreement with the Big Three a couple years ago to allow new hires to start as low as $14 an hour helped cut the differential between unionized and non-unionized plants. Even if those foreign-owned companies may not pay union scale, they pay a lot more than most other Southern-based companies. So why should a Southerner join a union?

King and the UAW want at least to try to convince companies to allow intimidation-free elections to give workers a true choice, but if that doesn't work they're ready to wage global-sized corporate campaigns to shame the companies into allowing democracy to work in their workforce.

Still, it's an uphill fight with the withering attacks of proto-fascist Glenn Beck and the Fox News channel providing a constant anti-union drumbeat. There are lots of conservative blue-collar viewers in the South who've never had any contact with unions, much less benefited from a union tradition.

So let's look at the Atkins plan for UAW success in the South. I've done some editing of my letter to Estrada, eliminating segments that are now dated or irrelevant, but the bulk of it is unchanged. Let me know what you think.

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Letter to the UAW

Hope you're doing well. I've done a lot of thinking about our earlier discussions, and I have some ideas together I'd like to share with you.

I believe a strong labor movement -- and a strong UAW -- are not only important and needed for the South but for the nation as a whole. I think you're right on target when you talk about a new message that focuses on "we together" rather than "what I can do for you (or you for me)," more inclusiveness and greater density (or solidarity).

I actually think these goals can be achieved. I'm often the last optimist in the room, but in this case I feel history shows us it can be done. I remember the pre-civil rights-era South, a time when a truly "new" South was considered impossible. I also lived for a time in West Germany when the idea of a re-united Germany was considered a pipe dream. This is a challenging time we face, but it is also an exciting time, one of great opportunity for a rebirth.

Here in the South it may seem nearly impossible that a worker with Nissan or Toyota would "risk" his or her job security by joining a union, particularly when they're making twice what their neighbors are making. Yet I'm going to outline some ideas below that offer ways to realize the "impossible dream" without making us all a bunch of foolish Don Quixotes! Some of them aren't really so original, and some may indeed be foolish, but nothing's lost by putting them out there.

A Social Movement

I agree with labor scholar Nelson Lichtenstein that the future of the labor movement -- and thus its vanguard, the UAW -- is to recapture its old identity as a social movement. The civil rights movement took its inspiration from the UAW's 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Mich., and other similar events, even converting old union songs into civil rights songs. That spirit needs to be revived. I think it would appeal to young people, their idealism and energy, give them a movement with which they can make their mark in history, align them with working people. That was a failure of the late '60s radicalism (and of unions): there was practically no solidarity between student radicals and workers (I know because I was there and in the middle of it!).

In my book Covering for the Bosses, I wrote about existing alliances in the South that show promise of a welding together of civil rights and worker rights, such as the Southern Faith, Labor, and Community Alliance. This group not only brings blacks and whites together but also Latinos. The UAW has been a strong supporter and needs to continue to nurture and be identified with such community action groups.

Worker Solidarity

My friend Marty Fishgold, a labor writer and activist in NYC (who died in 2010), once told me about how the IBM example might help the UAW here and elsewhere. IBM workers earned nice, enviable wages while workers at IBM suppliers had to scratch out a living on minimum wages. There was no worker solidarity. The same situation exists in the auto industry, certainly here down South. Worker solidarity is key to long-term success for the UAW, and to achieve it will likely require the Five-Year Plan you discussed. My suggestion is to mount a "Worker Pride" campaign that really identifies all of us as workers -- "If you have a boss, you're a worker" -- and not to shy away from "working class identity" (here I think I differ from Nelson Lichtenstein). This identity today can be shared by assembly line workers and high-tech workers and educators (and journalists). Even Silicon Valley workers could be made to identify with it these days! Believe me, you're never going to get "middle-class solidarity," and I'm not sure if the middle class even exists any more.

This worker pride can be specifically applied to workers in the auto industry. They are part of the last bastion of people in the USA who actually MAKE things. Their industry accounts for 25 percent of U.S. manufacturing. Take pride in that role, and don't just hand it over to the corporate boardrooms and let them rework it to their own interests. I'll return later to some auto industry specifics as far as appealing to workers at Toyota, Nissan, etc.

By the way, as a note here: Never underestimate the desire of most of the management and ownership class in the South (and that includes their politicians) to destroy unions. They are relentless and will stop at nothing. So eventually a working class militancy will be needed to confront them.

A Proposed Five-Year Plan

The UAW has to reach beyond just card-holding members. It would include tapping into old-fashioned Southern populism (the left-leaning kind of an Earl Long or Big Jim Folsom, not the right-wing populism of a Pat Robertson or Newt Gingrich). Ideas: Sponsor BBQ picnics, fish fries, open to the public (with ample security, however!), tap into media online and radio, spend some cash for TV and newspaper ads, begin a recruiting plan to get some country music, rap, or rock singers on board (study who might be sympathetic -- country music singers all sing about working class life, while many rap enthusiasts want the music to rediscover social consciousness) and maybe even some big name stars like a Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson or a Bruce Springsteen (appeal to their social consciousness so they won't charge so much for helping!). What about an ad or sponsorship at a NASCAR race (My note: The UAW already does this, of course)? At the local level, a lot of these things don't have to be expensive. The UAW needs to become part of the culture, the community, and it can't wait until Toyota is organized.

Reaching out to Jobless Workers and to Intellectuals & Artists

The UAW does indeed have to reach beyond members and the plant workers it wants to become members. There has to be a solidarity between all workers as well as intellectuals and artists. Locate laid-off people who may be angry or downright militant enough to volunteer to help -- whether by speaking to worker groups and participating in labor or worker schools (another suggestion) that could be set up. For that matter, I would open up membership or affiliation to non-plant workers, people sympathetic to the cause who might like to have that card in their pocket and be willing to contribute dues and other help.

Reaching Young People

Young people have idealism and energy, and not a lot of outlets out there for them to express those things. They need a movement. They have the tech savvy and the connections (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to spread the word. They can be recruited through UAW or labor-friendly speakers, lectures, workshops, film or documentary showings, etc. At present, they have little or no exposure to the labor movement.

Tapping into Local Issues

Here in Mississippi, education has been a perennial issue since the early 1980s (actually before). The UAW needs to join that dialogue, become active in promoting good education -- whether it helps immediate organizing needs or not. This is a good way to tap into education leaders and activists who might not necessarily think of the labor movement as one of their causes. Believe it or not, Mississippi does have its progressives -- in education, civil rights, environment, etc. -- it's just they need to be educated about how workers' rights fit into that picture. This applies to other Southern states, too.

Dealing with the Transplants: It's more than wages. It's respect & dignity

I think the UAW needs to move way beyond wage questions in appealing to workers. Respect and dignity are bigger issues with transplant workers. Of course, we can never forget fear as a part of their daily working lives. Life in a Toyota plant is all about intense competition with fellow workers (despite management's talk about "team" effort), fear of injury (and thus down-shifting of duties or loss of job), surveillance, modern-day speedups (the "kaizen" concept), temps, and a creeping cynicism. That's what the UAW needs to tap into, but it needs first to create the culture and climate that will make those workers turn to the UAW. This is what I've meant by the things I've suggested above.

As Tolstoy said, "Show, Don't Tell." Maybe there's been too much telling in organizing and not enough showing. Getting workers into a discussion that allows them to reach their own conclusions about things will be much more effective, I think. Ultimately, make them also feel part of something larger than themselves, part of a movement. This is some of the most compelling testimony in The Uprising of '34, the great documentary about the textile strikes in the South in the 1930s. For the first time, those mill workers felt like they were part of something important, and that made them important. It gave them back their humanity. That film brought tears to my eyes.

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So there you go. Take care and best wishes.