Monday, May 20, 2024

Here's why the UAW lost the battle at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama: a lack of long-term commitment and grassroots, shoulder-to-shoulder organizing

(A textile strike in the U.S. South in 1934)

The United Auto Workers led a largely digital, minimal-staff campaign at the 5,000-plus worker Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, and it failed. Despite predictions by the union that it had 70 percent-plus support, workers voted 56-44 percent against unionization this past week.


You’d think the UAW would have learned its lesson after multiple failed campaigns at Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi and two failed elections at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before its historic, landslide victory there in April.


As a veteran labor writer who has covered and studied the Southern labor movement for decades, I’ve seen what Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton learned in my native North Carolina during the 1970s. Winning in the South takes a long-term commitment and grassroots person-to-person organizing.


Sutton, who died in 2009, and her fellow workers in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, fought a decade-long war with the giant J.P. Stevens textile company before winning their union. It took the auto workers in Chattanooga three major votes and 10 years to gain their win in April. They went from losing their first vote 626-712 in 2014 and second vote 776-833 in 2019 to win this time by an unofficial count of 2628 to 985, a 73 percent margin.


Now their fight will turn to the bargaining table to get a union contract with Volkswagen, something that took Sutton and her fellow workers six years after their union victory to get with notoriously anti-union J.P. Stevens.


The UAW, which has pledged $40 million to unionize auto plants in the South, is also eyeing other non-union, foreign-owned auto plants in the South, such as Hyundai in Alabama, Toyota in Mississippi, and Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi.


Some observers believe UAW will secure a contract with Volkswagen without too much resistance because of the overwhelming pro-union vote at the plant. However, anti-union forces beyond the company, such as former U.S. Senator and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, can never be underestimated. They will do anything they can to stall any more union progress.


Those forces were much in play at the Mercedes-Benz plant, where management held required attendance anti-union meetings with workers despite the fact that such meetings violate the German company’s own stated principles of non-interference during organizing efforts. Last week’s vote was the first union election at the plant.


(the bloody Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921 as coal miners fight for their union)

Prior to the vote in Chattanooga, the governors of six Southern states, including Alabama, issued an ominous warning against bringing unions to the South. Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told workers they “risk their futures” if they vote union. A so-called “labor” online site called the pushed anti-UAW propaganda even as it presented itself as a valid source of labor information.


What helped the UAW in Chattanooga were energetic young and relatively new workers who didn’t inherit the old fears and prejudices that have hampered other campaigns in the South. They and other workers were also inspired by the success of the UAW’s Stand Up Strike campaign in 2023 with union victories at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Soon after the vote in Chattanooga, the UAW scored another victory with the Daimler Truck company in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, securing an agreement that included 25 percent raises for workers and an end to wage tiers.


Volkswagen, unionized everywhere else in the world except in the United States, generally complied with rules from its German base to keep hands-off in the union effort, including forbidding anti-union one-on-one sessions and required attendance at anti-union films. Still, workers turned toward the union in April after Volkswagen failed to keep many of the promises it made after the earlier elections.


Although Mercedes is also a German-based firm, it apparently had no such qualms about allowing anti-union measures to take place at its plant. Like Volkswagen, it also made many promises, and even hired a new plant manager, but now workers will have to see if those promises are kept.


Another factor in the election was former University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s turn-around in his support for unionization. After initially signaling a support for the union, he then told UAW’s ally, the More Perfect Union organization, to discontinue an ad featuring his endorsement. The Payday Report labor service says the University of Alabama convinced YouTube to take down the ad. Saban is a bona fide hero in Alabama.


However, for this writer, the key factor in UAW’s loss at Mercedes-Benz was a combination of its own arrogance after the victories in Chattanooga and in 2023 and a lack of a sense of history in the Southern labor movement.


(A call to strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas in the 1930s)


Winning the South has been a dream of organized labor for more than a century. The historic labor battles in the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia and in the textile mills of the Carolinas in the 1920s and 1930s are the stuff of legend. However, those often bloody-and-deadly battles included many heartbreaking defeats, just as did the Congress of Industrial Union’s “Operation Dixie” campaign in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even in victory, Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton and her fellow workers had to fight 17 years to get both a union and contract.


Today’s struggle is no less monumental. “Workers in Michigan are pitted against workers in Alabama, workers in the United States are pitted against workers in Mexico,” UAW President Shawn Fain wrote recently in In These Times magazine. “A united working class is the only effective wall against the billionaire class’ race to the bottom.”


It’s all true, Shawn Fain, but building “a united working class” in the South takes time, deep commitment, and roll-your-sleeves-up, ground-level, old school-as-well-as-new school organizing.


Tuesday, May 7, 2024

United Campus Workers pledge support for the pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Mississippi and decry the actions of the counter-demonstrators

(To the right, University of Mississippi pro-Palestinian protesters. From widely shared videos on social media) 

The recent anti-genocide protest and counter-protest at the University of Mississippi have received international attention. Some three dozen Ole Miss students showed their support for the Palestinians in Gaza who are under genocidal assault by the Israeli military—tens of thousands, many of them women and children are dead as a result of that assault. The students were met with some 200 counter protesters who threw objects at them and mocked and shouted at them. One of the counter protesters jumped about like an ape in front of a black pro-Palestine protester who happened to be a former graduate student of this writer.

(Counter demonstrators at the University of Mississippi taunting the pro-Palestinian protesters. Screenshot from video by Stacey J. Spiehler for the Mississippi Free Press.)


The counter protesters evoked painful memories of the racist and violent throng that tried to prevent James Meredith from enrolling as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962.


(James Meredith, accompanied by U.S. marshals, on the Ole Miss campus in 1962)


Pro-Palestinian protests at universities across the United States are a clear indication of a galvanized youth movement unseen since the 1960s and may spell major trouble for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. Biden’s military support for Israel has made this nation a party to the genocidal destruction of Gaza as well as the murderous actions of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Pro-Palestine protesters aren’t defending Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens on October 7. They’re standing against Israel’s murderous reaction to it.


Prompted in part by this writer, a charter member, the University Campus Workers of Mississippi-Communications Workers of America Local 3565 has issued a statement of support for the Ole Miss pro-Palestine demonstrators that I’ll copy below. Organized labor should stand shoulder to shoulder with these brave young people who’ve risked their college careers and possibly jail or injury to stand against this nation’s complicity in what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people.


Here is the statement:


United Campus Workers of Mississippi - CWA Local 3565


To UCWMS Members and the University of Mississippi Community:

On Thursday, May 2, a small and peaceful group of University of Mississippi students gathered to exercise their First Amendment right to protest on behalf of Palestinians facing a months-long genocidal assault by the Israeli Defense Force. This group of students were overwhelmed by a crowd of more than 200 counter-protestors, most of whom were also University of Mississippi students. Many of these student counter-protestors made explicitly racist remarks, shouting “hit the showers” and “your nose is huge” at the protestors; taunting a Black woman protestor by imitating a monkey; and equating the protestors with the terrorists in the 9/11 attacks. Others threw half-eaten food and water bottles at the students protesting against genocide. Several journalists, including student journalists, captured this abhorrent behavior on film, much of which is publicly available. Ultimately, police had to escort protestors off the premises for their own safety.

The unabashed racism displayed by the overwhelmingly White counter-protestors is unacceptable behavior for University of Mississippi students. It is out of step with our university’s creed, and violates the University’s own student code of conduct. Moreover, the counter-protestors’ throwing of food and drink at students engaged in a peaceful demonstration violated those students’ constitutional rights to free speech and to free assembly. 


We, the United Campus Workers of Mississippi, applaud the Chancellor's willingness to uphold the values of the university by condemning the racism at the protest and opening a student conduct investigation against one of the perpetrators. We call on the Chancellor and other university administration to continue their investigation to ensure that all students who behaved similarly are held accountable. The counter-protestors’ behavior, if left unchecked, sets a dangerous precedent for our students, as well as for any campus worker wishing to exercise their own First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate on or off campus.