Saturday, February 22, 2014

UAW leadership responsible for the defeat at VW

Gettelfinger, King and Ford CEO Mullally; they love the Germans now
By Richard Mellor
AFSCME Local 444, retired

The UAW’s defeat in its attempt to unionize the VW plant in Chattanooga Tenn. Should come as no surprise.  There was a massive anti-union campaign by right wing pro business groups and Republican politicians it is true, but the primary blame for the defeat falls on the shoulders of the UAW leadership and its failed strategy.

The UAW leadership has filed an appeal with the US government asking the NLRB to investigate the election in the hope that it can be thrown out and a new one held; good luck there. Anything but rely on the collective and united power of workers.  The UAW leadership is claiming that a concerted campaign by Republican politicians, former mayor of Chattanooga Senator Bob Corker for one and right wing groups like the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and the Competitive Enterprise Institute are responsible.

The election went against the UAW for the same reason that we have suffered defeat after defeat over the past 40 years and our living standards and working conditions continue to deteriorate and that is the Team Concept.  The Team Concept is the disastrous philosophy adopted by the entire labor leadership that workers and bosses have the same material and economic interests; that we are all on the same team.   The leadership’s collaboration with management stems from this approach.  Its disastrous effects are also felt every the job as union reps from staffers to rank and file stewards who support this view fail to confront the bosses aggressively to defend the folks who pay the dues.

As is so often the case, the UAW signed a neutrality agreement* with the VW bosses.  Of course, the boss is never neutral no matter what agreement they sign and nor should we be. In order not to jeopardize their relationship with the VW bosses the UAW leadership also refused to join with local union and community activists preferring a go it alone approach as Micah Uetrich explains in his excellent al Jazeera piece on the election.  Workers already in unions were willing to help but were given the cold shoulder by the UAW leadership and when the community group, Chattanooga For Workers held a community forum to support the drive only three UAW members were present according to Uetrich.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that coming in to the notoriously anti-union South to unionize workers would be made a lot easier by joining with local folks and community organizations. But it get’s worse. In the deal with the VW bosses, the UAW hierarchy and their staff were given permission to visit VW workers on the job in the break rooms. In return they agreed not to visit workers in the privacy of their own homes without a prior invitation. Uetrich points out the importance of home visits compared to break room visits:
“But house visits from union organizers to workers are essential to successful union drives. There is a process of telling stories, answering questions and overcoming fears that has to take place through genuine relationship building long before workers are ready to vote for a union. Those relationships are built through a level of intimacy and frankness in conversation that can't be replicated in a passing conversation in a break room. The UAW organizing staff surely knows this; but why they decided not to push back against VW’s insistence on no house visits is a mystery.”

I could have stated it better except that there is no mystery to it.  The Union leaders accept capitalism as the only form of social organization. Profits are sacrosanct and the market is the answer to all things.  The UAW leadership didn’t join with local groups because these groups were seriously interested in getting a union. This inevitably means a confrontation with the boss.  The Team Concept does not allow this. It is impossible to mobilize the potential power of your members against the boss when they are supposedly on the same team.  Their worship of profits and the market and having no alternative, means that for them, mobilizing their members can only lead to chaos.

But to show how important company profits and the bosses’ interests are to the UAW leadership they even committed to "maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that (Volkswagen) enjoys relative to its competitors."

It was this pact with the devil, or between two devils, that helped get the no vote according to one of the “no” organizers, VW employee Mike Jarvis. He told the Washington Post, “People on the fence were persuaded by a clause in the Neutrality Agreement negotiated between Volkswagen and the UAW before the election, which established this as one of the principles of collective bargaining: "maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that VWGOA enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America." In other words, keeping wages and benefits from getting too high relative to the already-unionized Big Three automakers in Detroit.”

All of this was done behind the backs of workers. Who would want to join a union like that? A “no” vote under these circumstances is not so much an anti-union vote is it? The UAW is not alone in this approach. The entire leadership of organized labor functions this way to the detriment of the rank and file member and to all workers, union or not. Workers built unions to protect us from the market not facilitate our own exploitation.  This is why your local rep appears to be in bed with the boss. It is not so much that they are corrupt or taking bribes and things like this. It is because they are ideologically corrupt, ideologically bankrupt.  Any rank and file worker or opposition caucus that aims to replace the present leadership and their class collaboration policies will do the very same thing if they do not openly condemn and reject the Team Concept from the off and develop a program and strategy that confronts the bosses rather than collaborates with them.

I was listening to some reps from my former union recently and they frequently used the term “harmony” and “equilibrium” to describe the process of negotiations with management. Their whole approach is not to “antagonize” the boss; one of them actually said that.  That’s like entering the boxing ring and being worried about hitting your opponent in case they hit back.

The relation between bosses and workers is not now and never will be a “harmonious” one. It is by its very nature a conflicting one as one side profits from the labor of the other; one doesn’t have to be a socialist to understand that.  This is especially true of corporations and we recognize that many community businesses try as best they can to treat their workers fairly under the circumstances.  But the relationship is always an unfair exchange.   We should heed the appeal from New England laborers some 170 years ago when they proclaimed:

"Brethren we conjure you...not to believe a word of what is being said about your interests and those of your employers being the same. Your interests and theirs are in a nature of things, hostile and irreconcilable.  Then do not look to them for relief...Our salvation must, through the blessing of God, come from ourselves.  It is useless to expect it from those whom our labors enrich."

Lastly, it’s important to note that with a considerable anti-union campaign and a completely pathetic organizing strategy the vote was only 712 to 626 against joining the United Auto Workers. That shows class-consciousness is not dead down there by any means.

* A young worker who worked as an organizer for the SEIU some years ago described to me what it was like organizing under a neutrality agreement: 

“The Union I work for has many locals, but the number is shrinking as a result of the international's policy of pushing locals to consolidate their memberships along industrial lines.  They want to have big locals that represent single industries in entire regions and so that they can concentrate their resources on increasing "market share."  

I t would be great to see a broad opposition develop within this union -- while I have learned a good deal about the nuts and bolts of organizing in a working class context, I also have learned the ways in which the union's organizing policy can really miseducate workers.  I'm on a team of 4 organizers organizing a large employer. My Union, as you may know, has a neutrality agreement with this employer.  All the flyers and leaflets we put out have to be run by a censor of the employer.  Right now I am collecting quotes and pictures from workers in the departments I'm responsible for to be put on a "Vote Yes!" flyer that will be mailed out.  Naturally some workers want to put things like "This company just cares about the bottom line, while we care about a good work environment and caring for patients.  A union will help us take back some power from management."  I have to tell these workers, who I've won the partial confidence of and have been working with for more than a month now, that they can't write that because it violates the Agreement between the union and management!

The "Agreement" (it's always spelled in caps) also takes away the workers' right to strike, picket, sick out, or in general mobilize, for years.  The current contract negotiations, which will occur between tens of thousands of workers and management, are blanketed by a no-strike agreement and will leave the workers' fate up to the hands of an arbitrator.  The company violates the Agreement all the time -- sometimes even firing workers trying to organize, sponsoring vote-no committees, etc, but we can't violate the agreement, ever, at the orders of the organizing directors.  These are all reasons that I've decided to leave, I feel dishonest organizing people under this wretched agreement...  I'm glad that the Union is expanding -- organizing is definitely the orientation of the organization -- but the organizing occurs in a very bureaucratic way which often utilizes the workers more as extras than as the central actors of the process.  I'm glad that workers are getting a union, but I don't want to be complicit in selling them out or misleading them.”

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