Despite defeat, need for powerful and democratic American organized labor

Union membership versus middle class income.

So the vote is back from the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and the workers there have rejected joining United Auto Workers by a few percentage points. Not surprisingly, union groups have condemned the election as rife with conservative interference. The South has long been the most hostile to any form of organized labor; a victory at a foreign-owned plant would have set a precedent to work off of.

Rich Yeselson, writing for the leftist magazine Jacobin, found the result predictable. Going over the various factors that contributed to the result:

Anybody can take the litany of factors I mention above and pick out the ones they think were most salient. Yes, the opposition of political elites was potent. Yes, the UAW neutralized VW, but, by turning it into a corporate pussycat, could barely provide a rationale for workers joining the union at all. Nor did it convey to the workers that it had the leverage to fight the company when necessary on their behalf, rather than accede to it as it had done with GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  Yes, it’s the mostly white South, and it was a likely largely evangelical workforce, to boot.

In an environment naturally hostile to unions, the advocates for change need to produce compelling reasons and tangible benefits. They were playing to an area where unions are viewed as part of a cast of evil- a worker grouped them in with Planned Parenthood, gun control, and the Democratic Party. Workers are stronger together than they are isolated and apart, but the most progress must be made in the most inhospitable places- not only in terms of perception, but the labor laws created in the past few decades.

What happened in Chattanooga is a bit of proof that unions like the UAW can’t get the key victories needed to reshape 21st century labor relations. It is not proof that there is no need for organized labor- but that the push should come from smaller and more unorthodox groups that can give the struggle the militancy and urgency it requires.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

2 thoughts on “Despite defeat, need for powerful and democratic American organized labor”

  1. Nice brief analysis. Yes, the vote was no surprise, but it’s still troubling. As for the smaller, more unorthodox groups you call for — I agree, but where are they? Unite Here showed some promise for a while. I’m a member of the Freelancer’s Union — freelancers make up something like 30% of the work force — and they’re certainly unorthodox, but they’re taking a long time to make any impact outside of New York City and the northeast. I was hoping some of the Occupy groups would take on labor issues, but so far I’m not seeing that happen…..


    1. I’m speaking of groups like the IWW who even at their small size have been able to unionize groups like baristas who are part of the vast swath of private service employees that haven’t been touched by large labor conglomerates. The defeat in Tenn. is ultimately a defeat at a manufacturing base, which is not where the decline in unionization stems from. It’s the growth of private service. Failed attempts to unionize tech employees, failed attempts to unionize warehouse and retail staff, failed attempts to unionize basically any chain store.

      Occupy took on labor issues early and often, and participants have fanned out into other groups. The 15now campaign in Seattle? The earliest supporters of it were Occupy activists. The mainline support came in much later.

      It’s nice that freelancers do have some formal solidarity- hell I freelance once in a while and the situation can be downright bleak. But unorthodox is good. Every union organization going back to the Knights of Labor had their own scope, and some groups have to do things themselves because they’re not on the to-do (soon or ever) list. If any freelance group in America started out, they’d look to NYC as the freelance capital. So it’s important that it’s there. It makes everything else more likely.


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