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On the UAW Victory

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I had the pleasure to talk to our friend Michael Hiltzik from the Los Angeles Times about the significance of the UAW’s victory in Chattanooga.

The vote opens the door to further votes and organizing drives across the region, where political leaders have kept unions weak in part through anti-union right-to-work laws — all 14 Deep South states, as well as 12 others, have those laws. Next on the schedule is a vote by 5,000 workers at a Mercedes plant in Alabama, scheduled to take place May 13-17.

“The real importance of this election is not just the organizing of this factory,” says labor historian Erik Loomis. “It’s that it announces the South is open to unions…. This has been the greatest struggle for the American labor movement for more than a century. A serious breakthrough in the South is now possible.”

The vote also represents a strong rebuke to the GOP political establishment in the South. Indeed, it turns the history of regional auto worker organizing on its head. In 2014, it may be remembered, Tennessee’s GOP establishment pulled out the stops to discourage workers at the Chattanooga plant from organizing with the UAW.

VW was willing to accept unionization, with an eye toward replicating the labor-management “works councils” common among manufacturing companies at its home in Germany. (“Volkswagen considers its corporate culture of works councils a competitive advantage,” a member of VW’s board had told the Associated Press.)

The governors also may have failed to read the room, as the saying goes. “The demographics of the South are different than they were 10 years ago,” Loomis told me. “More Latinos and more people moving from the North has been transformational to the South generally — the shift of politics in Georgia due to the expansive growth of Atlanta is one example. Charlotte has become a massive destination for young Black professionals, for another. The South simply isn’t as different from the rest of the nation as it used to be.”

Nor should one overlook the distinct change in labor policies at the federal level. Joe Biden’s stature as possibly the most pro-labor president in American history has been widely noticed. He is the only president to walk a union picket line, as he did during the UAW contract negotiations; he has been sticking with Julie Su, his nominee as secretary of Labor against ferocious opposition from Big Business; and his National Labor Relations Board has fulfilled its role as a guardian of collective bargaining rights.

Whether NLRB oversight of the Chattanooga vote tamped down the company’s efforts to undermine the vote isn’t clear, but it couldn’t have hurt.

The UAW’s success in its contract negotiations may emerge as a powerful argument in favor of organizing at other auto plants. There may be some defeats in the South lurking on the horizon, but there may also be further successes.

It’s worth recalling what happened after Grant’s victory in Chattanooga in 1863. Following the nearly simultaneous Union victories of July 1863 at Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa., Chattanooga tightened the noose on the Confederacy, opening the door to Sherman’s march to the sea in 1864 and the end of the Confederacy.

Last week’s vote in Chattanooga might, just might, be an equivalent turning point in the long war for worker rights and welfare.

Interesting analogy!

I was also on the Rick Smith Show, which is now on Free Speech TV leading into Democracy Now (congrats Rick!) and that aired tonight and here’s one clip of it, from right before I was going to the gym yesterday, thus the workout shirt.

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