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UAW Effort in Alabama Collapsing

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This is a depressing story.

Pro-union forces in the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama are asking the United Auto Workers to stop organizing there because the UAW won’t bring the election up to a vote.

Garner and Jim Spitzley, another longtime employee, have been key spokesmen for pro-union employees, and they have worked closely with the UAW on the campaign.

But they have grown increasingly frustrated with the UAW’s failure to file for an election.

At one point, the men say, the campaign had enough union authorization cards to legally file for an election, as more than 30 percent of the plant’s hourly production and maintenance workers had signed one.

But the UAW was pushing for a much higher percentage, 65 percent, because it wanted a sure win, they said.

“It’s all about the image with the UAW, and it’s not about the workers,” Spitzley said.

But before you say that the UAW is wrong here, understand that it is not wrong. The UAW knows it can’t bring this before an election because it will go down to a resounding defeat. 65 percent is a pretty standard number in modern elections because a lot of those votes will be peeled away in the intimidation campaign to come from the company.

Yet the Alabama unionists distancing themselves from the UAW is a sign of just how low the prestige of the union has become since the Chattanooga loss. I have no idea what the Alabama workers are going to do to replace the UAW. Some want the Machinists to come in but that would violate AFL-CIO jurisdiction rules, which may not be the best thing in the world sometimes, but you really don’t want unions raiding each other either. So probably nothing, maybe some kind of independent union, but the problem is that they aren’t going to win a vote either way. Maybe the best thing is to start an employees’ group that acts like a union, recruit members over the next few years, and build up that way. But right now, this is just ugly for anyone who cares about American unionization.

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  • Steve LaBonne

    Not just Chattanooga but the whole two-tier wage thing. Of course I understand why they had to do that but it’s not exactly a great calling card when they’re doing an organizing campaign.

  • Jesus weeps…

    • Anonymous

      I don’t propose to speak for Jesus, but union activity or inactivity is likely not at the top of the list of his concerns.

      • Lee Rudolph

        If not, then fuck Him.

  • Chris

    I freely admit I’m stereotyping, but I always thought the Deep South was ground zero for the “America as a country of serfs” phenomenon – in other words, you can’t help people if they don’t want to help themselves.

  • I think to effectively organize Southern workers there has to be a union whose national headquarters is in the South, has few if any black officials, and only organizes in Southern states.

    • FlipYrWhig

      American (Con)federation of Labor?

      • Contractual agreements that every car produced in the South has a horn, like the General Lee from Dukes of Hazard, that plays Dixie.

    • I elaborated on this here.

      • Opie Elvis

        Your points in the linked piece are well taken. I would add one additional influence, the Baptist church and certain Methodist denominations have built a cultural message on deference to authority. This gets preached as an acceptance of the existing social order and the necessity of “going along” with one’s betters. It’s a don’t rock the boat ethic designed to keep peopl in their place.
        I grew up in this environment and I know how deeply set these messages. A lot of the rhetoric about unions be communism and the other ideological crap simply masks a very simple cultural imperative, there is a very specific cultural hierarchy and defying that is seen as defying God.
        I don’t know how that link gets broken but breaking it is essential for organizing to be broadly effective.

        • Davis X. Machina

          I would add one additional influence, the Baptist church and certain Methodist denominations have built a cultural message on deference to authority.

          Overcoming this disposition is the signal achievement of the post-Bob Jones/post-Wade religious right, especially the evangelical community.

        • I suspect the vision is of competing authorities, with some deemed legitimate, and others not.

    • CatoUticensis

      Speaking as a Southern organizer, this whole notion is really terrible and a bad idea. Catering to racism inside the labor movement has never worked out well for the labor movement in the long run. Likewise, there are unions actively and successfully organizing in the South, like UFCW and the fast food workers/Raise Up, so the idea that you need to cater to white Southern biases to succeed is wrong on that count, too.

      • You could follow my link.

        Also, the idea that any labor union is doing well in the South is fantasy. Where’s a contract anywhere from the fast food stuff? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, or a failure, but at this point it’s definitely not a success in terms of actually unioniing anyone.

        • CatoUticensis

          I read your post. It doesn’t make this idea any less bad.

          And while it’s true that no union in the South is doing well, I would say that no union in the country is doing well. What I’m saying that they are having success, which is a completely different metric. But please, do go ahead and tell me what my experiences are. I’m sure it’ll be edifying.

          • Did you even grasp that I said it would be a bad idea?

            As for success, it doesn’t keep the lights on…or protect someone wrongly dismissed from work or raise their pay unless it leads to a contract.

            As for what might be edifying to you, I wouldn’t hazard to guess.

            • CatoUticensis

              -seizes on one union effort to dismiss all union efforts in the South-

              -ignores successful organizing drives that have resulted in contracts and locals being formed, like UFCW and FLOC and IAM-

              -is Dana Houle-

              • You have a nice day.

                • shah8

                  Wow. Impervious, aren’t you, Dana?

    • LosGatosCA

      I think you have the seed of the right idea here.

      It’s clear Southern white society is defensive and consequentially regionally xenophobic. Those are bad things that unions can’t solve even if they can help improve the situation. Those forces are well beyond entrenched and given the history of that region change happens at a glacial pace.

      Southern workers clearly aren’t going to organize if they perceive the main benefit is for workers in other states or they think they are being asked to conform to non-Southern values. A different, home grown approach is needed. The labor movement needs to adapt to provide unique answers for Southern workers. Anything else seems destined to fail, IMHO. In fact, I can envision a scenario where a Southern based union could gain instant credibility among Southern workers by being (sham) attacked by the UAW, etc.

      How to create a Southern labor movement that triangulates between corporate exploitation and ‘outside union agitators’ while (even slightly or more) improving economic fairness for all Southern workers without reinforcing historical racial structures is a really complex puzzle.

      • Ralphie

        Southern workers clearly aren’t going to organize if they perceive the main benefit is for workers in other states or they think they are being asked to conform to non-Southern values.

        Well…DUH!

        Average salary is 45K, which may not be a lot of money in New York City, but in Atlanta is above average. Now, outside yankee union organizers are asking them to rock the boat on what they perceive to be a fair deal.

        • Jennie, quit pretending you care about unions.

  • Linnaeus

    Wondering if Rich Yeselson had a point with his “fortress labor” concept.

    • CatoUticensis

      No, he didn’t. The notion that organized labor can hunker down in the North and the Pacific Coast and just wait for the storm to pass is a really silly notion.

      • And your alternative is…

        • CatoUticensis

          Committing resources to a significant, sustained organizing effort in the South on a broad front.

          • Oh, hey, that’s never been thought of!

            Seriously, if you’re not aware of that history, you may want to be a bit more modest in dismissing Rich.

            • CatoUticensis

              I’m perfectly aware of the history you condescending Yankee dickhead, which is why I disagree with Yeselson and his paean to the status quo. Operation Dixie and other, earlier organizing efforts were felled by various forces, many of which are no longer extant or have changed in nature since the time of the Second Red Scare.

              The last thing the South needs is people who don’t live in it, aren’t from it, and aren’t willing to listen to people who are either or both of these things opine on ways to change the South’s political trajectory.

              • you condescending Yankee dickhead,

                And with that, you prove my point.

                Thanks for the demonstration.

                • [BTW, my point wasn’t proved by “condescening” or “dickhead,” it was by using the designation of the opposing army of a war the South lost 150 years ago.]

                • CatoUticensis

                  “I got called an arrogant Yankee asshole when I was being an arrogant asshole, therefore I am right.” – Aristotle Dana Houle

                • CatoUticensis

                  [P.S. to reiterate, “The last thing the South needs is people who don’t live in it, aren’t from it, and aren’t willing to listen to people who are either or both of these things opine on ways to change the South’s political trajectory.”]

                • You assume so much you don’t know and in fact is wrong, because you’re too busy preening and making it about me to actually engage with my argument, and with reality.

                  I bet you’re a terrific organizer.

                • about you

                  ^ asshole ^

                • Seems accurate to me, Dana.

                  You characterize the south as being too racist and stupid to organize, and then suggest that the way to solve the problem is to support that stupidity and racism.

                  The first is certainly condescending, and the second is one of the most dickheadish things I’ve ever read on this blog.

                • Hey Rhino, great job of not reading the argument to see that I actually reject it.

                  Or, maybe you read it and were too stupid to understand it.

                  It’s not condescending when someone really is stupid and obnoxious and you’re just stating basic facts.

              • Anonymous

                Actually that **wasn’t** my argument, but then what else is new from you? Its an urban based, not a regional argument. Atlanta/Houston/Memphis–yes. Rural South–not likely. And you didn’t get the part about the status quo, whoever you are, either. Btw–do you have guts to argue to people in person or with you real name, or are do you just misread their arguments and are personally abusive to them by behind the protection of pseudonym? If you get to DC, get in touch–then you can say what you want to my face.

                • Anonymous

                  Oops, just to be clear, that was me. Rich Yeselson.

      • Linnaeus

        To be fair to your point, it’s not exactly a inspiring vision and there’s a lot that Yeselson may have missed. So I’m not completely convinced myself.

        I guess my “wondering” stems from some frustration at the position of labor in this country generally and in the South specifically. I’d love to see labor unions expand in the South, and I’d be willing to bet that a fair number of workers there would like to see that too. A minority right now, perhaps, but certainly a non-zero number.

        But there seems to be long-standing cultural and social obstacles to labor’s expansion that at some times seem intractable. I don’t want to believe that. I know that organized labor has made its fair share of mistakes, but I wonder if the problem really transcends that.

        Again, I’m not saying that Yeselson is right. At times like these, though, it’s hard for me to not think of that argument. I’d like to have a better answer than he does, though.

      • Yeselson

        And to be clear here, too: This isn’t about “waiting for the storm to pass.” And I never used language like that. This is a deeply structural/historical problem–labor only has big moments, not little incremental ones. Not only in the US, but all over the Western world. There are no storms–there’s just a dessert, until and unless the land turns green with milk and honey.You can’t do it incrementally. And, as I said below, I said nothing about a Northeast/Pacific Coast strategy either except to list some cities in those areas–urban yes, wherever possible, not regional.

        But again–how can anybody understand the context of your arguments? Nobody can evaluate **your** work, your location, industry, union–that’s all behind a screen. But you’re good at misunderstanding other people’s work.

        Again, offer stands–if you get to DC, look me up. I’ll buy you a top shelf Bourbon, apparently your drink of choice.. But talk directly. Or write to [email protected] If you want to understand my article, ask me–I’ll tell you what my argument is. You’ve misread twice already, just in the context of these comments. But if you want to have serious, substantive engagement with people who maybe know a few things too, you gotta come out behind your curtain. In person or email–your choice.

        • Since he misread my argument too, and is accusing me of the exact opposite of what I’m advocating (while ignoring the ironic “solution” I proposed for an obvious problem they won’t acknowledge) I’m guessing this person isn’t interested in actually understanding complexity and nuance.

          • Yeselson

            It’s a shtick–the “real Southerner”/authentic bourbon drinking working class thing along with the pretentious organic intellectual Cato pseudonym (I’m sure a lot of workers relate to that allusion!) and the $10 words like paean. Wants to have it all ways–he’s both more ***authentically*** working class/Southern and also more of scholar/academic.

            Biggest problem is that he immediately resorts to ad hominem bullying stuff behind the protection of the pseudonym. And then gets engraved when it’s thrown back in his face. Bad faith all the way down–and no better answers than anybody else.

            • Everything you said, plus this: he appears to not care enough about what others think to actually pay attention to what they say. Not listening is a guaranteed way to be a useless organizer.

        • CatoUticensis

          Kids, let this be a lesson to you: call the most tediously pedantic man on labor Twitter a concern troll and he will never, ever let it go.

  • e.a.f.

    the south is still a place of “backward’ society. They actually believe the bullshit that is pedalled by the establishment. The education system hasn’t helped.

    When you look at southern politics, its amazing that working women and men buy into the bullshit.

    As to the union, they do need a higher standard to take this to an election. If another union may have a better chance, then they need to step aside, put their ego in their pocket and let another union take a crack at it. It is about unionization, not about the individual unions.

    Sometimes Americans are just too stupid to save. Give them a big t.v., a case of beer and they’re happy. Or perhaps Americans have so little they are afraid to loose what they have.

    • Davis X. Machina

      When you look at southern politics, its amazing that working women and men buy into the bullshit.

      It’s not amazing. There are self-interests besides, and beyond, economic self-interest. Their behavior is rational if you accept their premises.

      • Their premises are not rational.

        The way to address these issues is to change their minds on those premises. You can’t free a man who doesn’t want to be free.

        • Manju

          Their premises are not rational.

          But are your premises about them even true.

          PS…the real action lies in rich southern voters. (I’ll get deeper into it tomorrow, if your interested).

    • Linnaeus

      The things of which you speak happen all over the United States. I live in a relatively union-friendly state with a higher union density than most states, and you still see those attitudes here.

  • Given what happened in Albany last night, why should anyone believe union leadership as their members best interests at heart? And no, a WFP candidate was never going to become Governor. The point was to hold Andy below 50% and possibly below 40% come November. Do that and Andy’s presidential dreams, slim as they are, are crushed(in the event Hillary doesn’t run).

    • The unions’ choice might be back for the working class, but how is it bad for their own members? It might make very good sense for their own members to support Cuomo. Not saying I agree with it but way too many people think that labor unions’ primary job is to be leftist organizations that represent the entire working class, when it is in fact to represent the interests of their members.

      • WFP had this crappy choice here, or that crappy choice there. The great choice wasn’t on the menu.

        • To me it pretty much shows that it is a pointless organization.

          • Eh, they’re fairly solid in Connecticut, which since Dems/WFP got the governorship has been great on all kinds of economic and social issues.

            • If they can’t bail on bad Democrats, then why aren’t they just Democrats? It’s more of a progressive support organization than a third party. I mean, I am not a fan of third parties, but if you are going to do it, at least there should be some principles involved. And I think the fact that the major players behind the WFP, i.e., 1199, went their own way for their own reasons shows the sketchiness of it as any meaningful force.

              I could be convinced otherwise I suppose. But given how far more conservative NY politics are than they should be, I’m not sure I’m seeing much difference it is making.

              • They can bail on Dems. But in this case bailing would probably have left them with nothing. And I think a big reason NY politics is too conservative is a fossilized Dem leadership and too many pols from NYC who can be easily bought off.

  • Rusty Spikefist

    It’s not “ugly” or “depressing”, it’s a near miss under challenging conditions that everyone recognized as such from the beginning. The south, especially the deep south like Alabama, has always been unbelievably unfavorable territory for organizing campaigns, and it’s a good sign they even got as far as they did.

    • ?

      How is it a “near miss?”

      • Rusty Spikefist

        50% is more than 3/4 of the way to 75%. that’s a near miss by any standard.

        • Linnaeus

          You have to take into account a couple of things:

          1. “Soft” support. There will be workers who will sign on to a union effort and support it in the abstract, but then shift away from that support when the time comes to implement a union in their specific workplace, e.g., “yes, I support unions but we really don’t need one here”, etc. Or perhaps they signed a card to keep the organizers away.

          2. Anti-union campaigns. I don’t know if there was one in this case, but anti-union campaigns, either explicit or implicit, really do chip away at support.

        • Article appears to say they only cleared 30%.

        • NobodySpecial

          Except by the standards of math, which tells us that 50% is 2/3 of 75%.

          • It reminds me of Lieberman’s claim of a 3-way tie for third when he finished 5th in New Hampshire.

            Glad to stay positive, but you never want to be delusional.

    • This is not a near miss. They aren’t even close.

  • Lee Rudolph

    The then-president of my university of last employment once proclaimed to a faculty meeting, with a straight face (and possibly with complete sincerity: he really was amazingly stupid, in addition to all his other flaws), that our faculty compensation was “near the median” of our (purported) “peer group” of 17 (purportedly) “comparable” colleges and universities, when the very document we held copies of in our hands (and he a copy in his) put us second or third from the bottom (and the dollar differences between adjacent ranks were almost all non-negligible).

    In the same sense, “more than 30 percent” is a “near miss” when the target is 65 (or even 51!) percent.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Why this didn’t post as a reply to Dana, I don’t know. But it was.

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