How the UAW Can Make It Right

— Aswar Amen-Ra

MY NAME IS Asar Amen-Ra, I am a UAW member (Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) and a Chrysler (FCA) employee with over 22 years of experience in the auto industry, as a worker, elected union representative and as an organizer.

Moreover, I have over 26 years' experience as a grassroots community organizer dedicated to the social, economic, and political change in this country. I was a UAW organizer in the South from 2011-2014 with assignments in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

What Went Wrong in Mississippi

As you might have read in prior articles, there are many factors in why the UAW lost the vote at the Nissan plant in Mississippi. These ranged from the failure to build a larger and stronger organizing committee to Nissan’s massive and potentially illegal anti-union campaign. There is also the alleged UAW/FCA corruption scandal.

All these played a role in the UAW defeat, but speaking as an organizer who spent years at ground zero, the biggest factor for this historic loss is something no one really talked about: the lack of concentration, organization, and focus on one global campaign against one multinational corporation.

When I arrived in Mississippi in 2011, everyone was told that in order to organize a southern auto transplant we had to build a new type of organizing campaign. We were informed (and we knew) that the system outlined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was inadequate.

The National Labor Relations Act has no teeth; its legal process is S-L-O-W. It only allows for nominal/minimal damages for companies that are found to be in violation of the law. And many times the board allows companies to violate the law with impunity.

So as organizers we knew that we could not win a union election fight under the NLRB system. Thus, the leadership stated, we must look outside the system for a plan that would end in a winnable union election.

The leadership turned to former head of the AFL-CIO’s organizing department Richard Bensinger. He formulated a plan called The Principles for Fair Union Elections. These were a set of codes to be agreed upon by both company and UAW in order to create a fear-free working environment. So as workers attempted to form their union both sides would have access to make their case. (See http://images.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/C416852713.pdf) To get any company to adhere to the principles was another story.

The leadership also talked about core values put forward by the International Labor Organization. Key to the ILO’s mission is the concept of workers’ international rights to form a union. Workers don’t lose their rights just as they walk in the door for work. And clearly Nissan has deplorable working conditions. (http://bit.ly/2BjGGZM)

This seemed to me a good campaign model to beat a global corporation. Certainly Nissan is a multinational conglomerate with no allegiance to countries or people. Management practices exploitation and oppression across the globe, and does so without fear of punishment.
Our global campaign would resonate powerfully with the experience of others. A global campaign could have marshalled resources to develop a multi-pronged approach.

Instead of developing a single global campaign, the union leadership’s attention and finite resources were split between Mississippi (Nissan), Alabama (Mercedes), and Tennessee (Volkswagen).

At the same time, a dealership campaign was outlined consisting of, but not limited to, bannering and leafleting Nissan dealers across the nation (possibly the world), informing customers that Nissan was violating workers’ rights.

Grassroots members, both active and retired, could have been mobilized for this campaign. It would have been ideal to get members involved. And, if carried out, it would have established the reality that organizing a union is every member’s responsibility. But, it never happened.

Just as corporations work together internationally on projects, such as research and development, unions can too. The UAW leadership was supposed to enlist global unions that represent Nissan workers in order to put pressure on the corporation.

There could have been global solidarity actions; such as massive rallies at the company’s headquarters. Perhaps there could have been sympathy work actions at every Nissan facility across the globe. The multinational corporation might have been forced to respect workers’ right to organize.

But the campaign never materialized. The only place we heard about international solidarity was when a few international labor delegates spoke at local meetings or when we were encouraged to sign resolutions that had no concrete action. At the end of the day, maybe the UAW leadership was scared to marshal the needed resources.

If the UAW and its affiliates in the AFL-CIO, had studied history and drawn some lessons, they would have known that without a comprehensive campaign failure was the likely outcome.

Another Way Forward

Organized labor needs to begin to unify and solidify our collective organizing resources. This is particularly true in the South, where the white supremacist establishment, since the beginning of industrialization, has been hostile to workers in general and Black workers in particular.

Why not take the idea of Operation Dixie, and adapt it? This was a vast organizing project that the CIO implemented in post-World War America. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Dixie)

Using the Operation Dixie model, with a collective focus, we could organize all workers in a particular area, such as in Jackson/Canton, Mississippi. That is, whatever one’s employer, every working person, no matter the employer, would be fighting for union recognition and better working conditions.

The Chamber of Commerce and right wing political forces could not then focus their attacks on a single union. They would have to employ a broadside attack, lambasting all unions. This would reveal them as having substantial hostility toward all workers.

The public could then view such hostility up close and in the light of their own economic livelihood and survival. Moreover, the community at Ground Zero would be more engaged, because everyone who wasn’t directly involved would know someone who worked at one of the facilities.

The community as a whole would be far more invested in the outcome of the struggle; many more would be drawn into the fight for fundamental change in Mississippi. It would be possible for people throughout the region to see that the battle was between the working class and the employer class, and not just between Nissan employees and the Nissan Corporation.

Certainly in this time of economic crisis and inequality, unions and particularly the UAW can’t live off their legacy. Instead they need a strategic vision like the one that led to successful unionization in the 1930s.

Union leaders always say that organizing is the lifeblood of the union. In that case, I’d say unions are in need of a massive blood transfusion. With the need for a transformational change in Mississippi and the South, will union leaders step up to the plate and implement this change?

[For further background on the Nissan campaign, see Dianne Feeley’s article (www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/5082) and one by Chris Brooks (www.labornotes.org/2017/08/why-did-nissan-workers-vote-no)].

January-February 2018, ATC 192

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