So the UAW Lost, What Can Be Done? Some History Lessons.

Rosemary Feurer
Rosemary Feurer is editor of Labor Online, author of Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 and Against Labor, co-edited with Chad Pearson. She is completing The Illinois Mine Wars.
View all posts by Rosemary Feurer »

In the aftermath of the UAW loss in the Volkswagen union election in Tennessee, declarations of “A Titanic Defeat” echo across the blogosphere. The glum analysis reinforces the notion that labor is chronically a victim of conservative workers views and Republican machinations. Some suggest a racially-driven perspective in which Detroit and Obama are used as union bogeymen, a view purportedly lapped up by the mindless Tennessee workers who couldn’t see their true economic interests. All reporters note the acute embarrassment for the UAW, which had the tacit approval of Volkswagen to unionize. Some say this that this is a signal of the end of the UAW.

I’ll put 3 points out that are based on my knowledge of UAW from Jerry Tucker and all those who have struggled to make the UAW a fighting union in recent years.

1) This is no more a major defeat for the UAW than was the UAW leadership’s decision to destroy the militant cadre and dissent of groups like UAW-New Directions years ago. It’s no more than a publicity blip for a union that has made such compromises with management that it consistently loses respect among its own members. How can historians ignore the logic of Tennessee workers who might have heard that the UAW has negotiated 2-tier wages, that workers in auto parts plants have seen their wages decline markedly even with representation, to as low as $10 an hour? As I watched the campaign, I hoped that workers might be able to see a power advantage with a union in that plant, but wondered HOW they would see that with the UAW having capitulated so much in recent decades. Where’s the model they can look to? Why romanticize the union? Perhaps 42 (the margin of defeat) of these workers had heard about the way that UAW officials have forced concessions on Ford workers or how the UAW had worked with the Obama administration to slash tens of thousands of jobs and benefits and have not yet been thoroughly convinced that the union would make a difference given that record?

2) Why does the hope for this campaign end here, when the difference between victory and defeat is a mere 42 people? In the 1930s, this kind of a vote in the south would have been viewed by District 8 of the United Electrical Workers, which campaigned against much more oppressive culture and conditions, as an opportunity. They would have found such a vote inspiring. I’m not kidding. I can hear the conversation in my mind, based on the historical records I examined: “In the face of no union experience, or experience jaded by lackluster company union, or experience with AFL representation, and without a house-to-house campaign, almost half the work force voted for the union! We are sure to win the next time.” Why? They would have used the base of current union support to act like a union in the plant, demanding group grievances in the Works Council, collective action as a model for representation, learning the concerns of workers, developing a shop steward system that created a working model of real union culture. They would have used the opportunity to build a vibrant base in the community that could counter the anti-union rhetoric that politicians like Corker emitted. It would have been the beginning, not the end.

3) This is not to say that the Republican dirty tricks don’t matter, but that blaming workers and the Republican Party means nothing. Blaming workers for the lack of consciousness is a dead end that historians would do well to rethink or at least contextualize by examples from the past. Living in a repressive atmosphere limits your boundaries, but the solution is not more capitulation to the Democratic Party, which is what the UAW has been very good at doing.

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4 responses to “So the UAW Lost, What Can Be Done? Some History Lessons.”

  1. Erik Loomis says:

    I will note I did not “ignore the logic of Tennessee workers who might have heard that the UAW has negotiated 2-tier wages,” in the article by me that you cite. I in fact mentioned it in the article as a likely important reason for the defeat.

    • Guest says:

      Thanks Erik. While I used your headline, and I really disagree with the notion of this as a Titanic defeat, not all of what I cited from the blogosphere references your blog, which does acknowledge this.

      This wouldn’t be a titanic defeat if the UAW were something other than what it currently is. We can’t read workers consciousness, or lack thereof, from this vote.

      I was actually thinking of Jarod Roll’s paper that I was reading for the forthcoming Newberry seminar when I was writing some of this. I anticipate that some historians like Cowie and Roll will gloat about conservative consciousness and the end of the working class and say that leftist historians just wont’ face up to the reality of American individualism. Here is a case in which we have to stay attuned to institutional forces, not just consciousness. I mean, it’s really about 42 workers, and to me it’s silly to say that if those 42 had changed their votes we’d be declaring a new day dawning for the UAW. But in all there is so much more going on here. I’ll admit I’m too close to this subject, having been schooled in UAW history by so many working class hero friends of mine who were crushed, including some I’ll be writing about on the blog in the days ahead.

    • Rosemary Feurer Rosemary Feurer says:

      Thanks Erik. While I used your headline, and I really disagree with the notion of this as a Titanic defeat, not all of what I cited from the blogosphere references your blog, which does acknowledge this.

      This wouldn’t be a titanic defeat if the UAW were something other than what it currently is. We can’t read workers consciousness, or lack thereof, from this vote. I mean, it’s really about 42 workers, and to me it’s clear that if those 42 had changed their votes we’d be declaring a new day dawning for the UAW.

      • kapshow says:

        The key both you can unite on

        The union has a substantial base in a plant with a management that claims to accept unionism

        What prevents overt collective action by this union despite it’s minority official status

        I agree completely with RF this is a huge opportunity to go back to the methods that
        To be brief
        built industrial unions in the first place