A Lesson From Chattanooga

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“…we’re outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering…” — UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams

Many factors led to the United Auto Workers’ (UAW’s) loss in the recent union election at the Volkswagen (VW) factory in Tennessee. Likewise many lessons can be learned. One especially important lesson concerns how one factor – “outside influence” – works so one-sidedly in the United States.

Several UAW spokespersons and supporters bemoaned “outside interference” in this election. It was chiefly Republican politicians and activists and business groups that tried actively to persuade VW workers to vote against unionizing the factory, while the VW management remained neutral. Yet outside interference always influences union elections. Outcomes are never results merely of what employers and employees say and do in election campaigns.

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

Just as important is the way workers see the larger world and their places within it. That emerges from the workers’ families and households, the education they received, the mass media they engage, and from political parties and government. All their life experiences shape how they think about everything including voting in union elections.

Organizations of business, the wealthy and the conservatives (think tanks, foundations, hired public relations firms, advertising enterprises, major newspapers, mass radio and TV stations, internet outlets and social media) work constantly to shape workers’ life experiences and thus how they see the world. Because of their dependence on financing from businesses and the wealthy, most Republicans and Democrats avoid conflicts with their campaigns to shape public opinion. Conservatives pander to them.

No alternative, different way to see the world similarly surrounds workers in their daily lives. Workers’ organizations (unions, think tanks, independent media) are many fewer, poorer and much weaker. “Outside influences” shape workers’ consciousness one-sidedly because of the gross disparity of resources available to those exerting that influence. What made local Republicans and conservatives’ billboards persuasive was public opinion; the shape of that opinion defeated unionization in Tennessee. How differently “outside influences” work in other countries is suggested by this simple fact: virtually all of VW’s 105 factories elsewhere are unionized.

During the middle 1930s, millions joined unions for the first time: the greatest unionization drive in history.
The history of unionization in the US reinforces the point. During the middle 1930s, millions joined unions for the first time: the greatest unionization drive in history. We had never seen anything like it before, nor have we since. Unionization then was achieved by a remarkable alliance: unions (allied in the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO) plus large, active socialist and communist parties. Those parties widely and effectively contested the “outside influences” stemming from business, the wealthy and conservatives. Socialists and communists mobilized their own media, writers, artists and academics into play. Their demonstrations on many social issues made news and their organizations disseminated a distinctive interpretation of that news. They contradicted what business, the wealthy and conservatives asserted and not only around particular issues. Many among them also contested the economic system arguing that the US could and should do better than capitalism. Interested teachers, clergy, students, immigrant and racial minorities and the general public thus continuously encountered perspectives other than those of business, the wealthy and conservatives.

How workers thought about and responded to union activists in the 1930s reflected the “outside influences” stemming from their socialist and communist allies. Those influences helped to make unionization so stunningly successful then.

Consider the claim – evidently somewhat effective in Chattanooga – that high wages won by the UAW caused Detroit’s economic collapse. That the UAW’s enemies would make that claim is not remarkable; that some workers took it seriously is. Every significant decision at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler since their beginnings was made exclusively by their major shareholders and boards of directors, all small handfuls of individuals. They alone decided what vehicles and fuel efficiencies to produce, what technologies to use, how many workers to hire, and where to locate or relocate factories (north, south, at home, or abroad). They always excluded workers from participation in those decisions (and opposed the UAW’s participation in wage decisions). They insisted on management prerogatives and expertise and corporate responsibilities.

While Detroit’s auto industry was booming, those decision-makers took full credit; it was all about their entrepreneurial geniuses. Then, their many bad corporate decisions (on auto design, technical composition, fuel efficiency, marketing and much else) badly weakened the industry. That plus far better decisions among European, Japanese and Korean auto producers reduced US firms’ profits and market shares. US firms’ major shareholders and boards of directors then decided to leave Detroit, ignoring their decision’s disastrous effects. In contrast, while German manufacturers pay their unionized workers much more than their US counterparts, they have not abandoned their workers or their cities. Germany has no equivalent of Detroit.

As Detroit declined, auto-company decision-makers conveniently reversed themselves and asserted their non-responsibility. They were suddenly not the powerful “captains of industry” they once called themselves. Instead they want folks to believe that the UAW forced high wages on them and that they left Detroit because the UAW victimized them. Some Tennessee workers found such assertions plausible and voted accordingly. By contrast, the profound impact of German unions and their socialist and communist allies on public opinion there helps explain why this year VW’s unionized German workers are enjoying a 5.6 percent wage increase at a time of 1.2 percent inflation.

Only a sustained counterprogram of mass education could at least partly shift “public opinion” so that it functions less as an anti-union “outside interference.” The construction today of an alliance parallel to the one that proved successful in the 1930s might accomplish that counterprogram. Labor needs to rebuild collaborations with academics – students as well as teachers – and political activists who understand past and present contrary to the claims promoted by business, the wealthy and conservatives. In short, a besieged labor movement needs again to become part of a much broader social movement. This time the urgency is less to grow (as in the 1930s) and more a matter of organized labor’s survival.

Credit: Dale Robbins
Richard D. Wolff is a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the graduate program in international affairs of the New School University and also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan. Wolff has taught economics at Yale University, the City College of the City University of New York and the Sorbonne in Paris. His work is available at rdwolff.com and at democracyatwork.info.
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  • kandy830

    My Uncle Caleb just got red Ford Focus ST
    by working off of a computer. try this C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Anonymous

    Gotta fight fire with fire. Problem is, the Right can afford hotter fires.

  • Mary Johanna

    No I don’t believe that. People are content, and the American slogan: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” comes to mind. I believe a works council would have been a great addition to the plant, but the workers for whatever reason don’t believe they need it. Life is good in their neighborhood and they are not worried about the big picture….

  • Beth Holden

    In his 2/17/14 article, Richard Wolff describes maneuvers by
    outside forces to determine the outcome of the recent U.A.W. election. In company with many thinkers on the Left, he concludes that “labor needs to rebuild collaborations with–” others to “become part of a much broader social movement.”

    But we must ask ourselves why such broad social movements
    develop and what makes them fall apart. Why do we have to keep rebuilding the same collapsed structures? What is it in human nature that leads us to vote against our own interests? What group have these voters chosen to identify with, and why?

    Richard Wolff often speaks of worker owned cooperatives to replace corporations owned by a few who make all the decisions. This alternative should be flourishing in the current economic environment. We must ask ourselves why it is not. Democracy requires personal responsibility. We must ask ourselves why it is more desirable to hand over responsibility and live with the consequences, than to take it upon ourselves.

    We need a much better understanding of what drives human behavior if we shall ever move beyond rebuilding. Personal identity is key, and self awareness is essential. Unfortunately, we spend most of our lives avoiding self awareness and following the dictates of advertisers and politicians who know more about our motivations than we do.

  • Lucinda Weakland Greene

    With all due respect to Mr. Wolff, I agree with his discourse except for the inclusion of Ford Motor Co since the 1980’s. At that time they had the foresight to engage Dr. Edward Deming to teach them the big “secret” of the Japanese auto industry’s success. While so many other large companies, including their competitors, turned these lessons into nothing more than training programs with a nifty slogan under the guise of “Quality Improvement” without making any changes at the top, Deming demanded, and got, the commitment of the CEO and his board of directors at Ford to LEAD this change. The first car produced under Deming’s management principals was the highly successful Taurus.

    Deming’s management principals required Ford management to PARTNER with the UAW instead of treating them as adversaries. Since that time, UAW representatives have been included discussions with the board of directors and participated in their decision making processes. Having visibility to the same information about the business, their workers have been more willing to make concessions when times were tough, not just preserve jobs in the short term, but help the company be successful in the long run so that those jobs would last. While Ford made some of the mistakes Mr. Wolff has noted, they have also been able to provide better benefits to their workers, their retirees and, at the same time, weather the last downturn without a government bailout.

  • Anonymous

    This article is a joke. You talk about ‘outside influences’ yet you seem to ignore that the top donors in this country are labor unions. Did it ever occur to you that people don’t believe they need a union to negotiate for them? Did it ever occur to you that people would rather keep the money they earn, then give a portion of their paycheck to the union. Did it ever occur to you that people may like the idea of joining a union, but don’t want their money being taken to support politicians who support gun control or other liberal policies?
    The fact that you compare the union drive of the 1930’s to today shows how little you really know about the issue. The workers in this plant were happy. They work in safe conditions. They are paid a fair wage. They were treated with dignity and respect by VW. It was ‘outside influences’ who brought the idea of unionization to the plant. Unions of the early-mid 1900’s had a purpose. But, over time they grew too powerful and become corrupt. Both public and private sector unions overplayed their cards and people got tired of it. Unions have become the very thing they fought against back in the 1930s.

  • Anonymous

    Do some research on the top political donors and you will find that they are labor unions.

  • Anonymous