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5 lessons for student organizers from the UAW failure

UAW President Bob King

Last Friday, workers at Volkswagen's factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted 712 to 626 against unionizing with the United Automobile Workers. There are more than a thousand unionization votes in the U.S. every year, so what made this vote particularly important?

This vote was probably 2014's most important union election for several reasons.

First, its location: this was organized labor's best shot at a new union plant in the deeply anti-union South, and could have worked as a foothold from which to build future organizing victories.

Second, it was unique in its relationship to management: VW was officially neutral in the union election. This meant that VW management didn't lobby its employees against joining the union (which management almost always does), although apparently lower-level supervisors did make their opposition known. Part of this neutrality was due to VW's union-friendly orientation at other plants, particularly in their home country of Germany.

Third, VW's top brass wanted the factory to be unionized as that was the only legal way in the U.S. that they could form a works council (basically worker participation in key management decisions). This would be the first works council of its kind this side of the pond, and a model that unions are keen to see spread. The Chattanooga plant is the only factory that does not have a worker representative sitting on VW's Global Works Council.

Fourth, the astounding level of outside opposition to the union: while VW bowed out of the role of hostile election opponent, right wing economic and political elites quickly more than filled the part. In an unprecedented episode of meddling, outside money flooded Chattanooga to fuel the opposition campaign, while state and Federal politicians gravely warned of the consequences of unionization (one State Senator even threatened to halt any future development funds to the VW plant if the UAW won.

Mike Elk's coverage of the UAW campaign has been fantastic, and his In These Times writeup is the best recap I've seen so far. Read it.

Student organizers can learn much from other social movements, and labor especially. So what are some lessons students can learn in the aftermath of the UAW campaign?

1. Your target should be your best organizer.

There's an old labor adage that tells us "the boss is your best organizer." That is, unionization campaigns are most successful when organizers focus relentlessly on management and highlight worker-owner antagonisms. This applies in most campaigns across all social movements: it helps to have a Bad Guy. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame."

In the case of VW, organizers lost their best organizer. Because of the agreement UAW reached with VW to ensure management neutrality during the campaign, union organizers were forbidden to cast VW or its management in a negative light. The relief they received from employer harassment and mandatory anti-union meetings came at the price of their most effective arguments.

Student organizers should be acutely aware of this danger. If you're working to build a student union, beware of being perceived as too buddy-buddy with the administration. When considering whatever benefit could be derived from administration's (or faculty's, or anyone's) seal of approval, weigh it against your ability to keep pressure on them in a way that 1) remains effective and 2) is believable by students. For example: would an easy, minor victory now, say, a few token seats on a committee, short-circuit your ability to build toward a larger victory by removing your ability to assail that committee for being unresponsive and undemocratic?

2. Build trust by being accountable to students.

The UAW was new to Chattanooga, an unknown quantity. As Mike Elk put it in the New York Times:

The key to organizing workers in areas like the South, where unions hold little sway, is building trust. From conversations at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, I learned that the U.A.W. lost because workers were suspicious of it. Meddling by antiunion politicians was a factor in U.A.W.’s defeat, but that's not the whole story. Many workers who voted against the U.A.W. said they weren't opposed to unions, but they just didn't trust the U.A.W.

When UAW brass negotiated VW's neutrality, they also agreed to some key concessions, in particular their pledge to "maintain or enhance the cost advantage and other competitive advantages" that VW currently has. This pre-negotiation unsettled many Chattanooga workers, who rightfully wondered why they should take part in a process whose outcome looked preordained from the outset. UAW concessions elsewhere, like the development of two-tier contracts (in which new employees are essentially screwed out of the benefits that long-time employees earn), also left a bad taste in their mouths.

Student unions are as foreign to U.S. students as labor unions are to southern (hell, northern) workers. There is no shortcut, no backroom deal with administrators or faculty that will substitute for the hard work of building a cohesive student body that can collectively push for change. Otherwise we risk constructing the same old compliant student governments under a different name — a committee to agree to and then trumpet concessions on behalf of the student body.

3. Educate, educate, educate.

Mike Burton, a VW worker who led the anti-union drive, said many workers felt that they were paid well and treated well without having a union and thus saw no need to have one. (NYT)

An organizer has to convince people 1) why things are horrible right now, and 2) why the organizer's proposed solution is good and worth fighting for. UAW wasn't able to convince enough workers that the benefits of joining their union outweighed the dues withdrawn from their paychecks every month, particularly when VW was already paying them comparatively well. There also wasn't sufficient education of workers about why a Works Council was such a big deal, either (though the progressive blogosphere was practically writhing in ecstasy over the prospect).

A movement's need to educate its members and allies is never done. Especially in the early organizing stages, and especially when you're pushing for something that is new and foreign to most people.

4. Your opponent will pull out all the stops.

As I wrote above, the outside pressures against the UAW drive were enormous, and to a lot of workers, a complete surprise. A good gauge of how seriously you're threatening the administration is the extent to which they're resorting to extraordinary means and using outside help to stop you. For university staff and faculty unions, this often takes the form of hiring high-priced union-busting consultants and law firms, along with courting outside vendors to replace those jobs entirely. For student organizers, the most common escalation is the move from campus police to city/state police, particularly during protest actions and occupations. Adminstrators can and do throw the book at activists, threatening not only expulsion but criminal charges, and placing restrictions on all forms of public expression on campus.

While administrators can turn up the pressure, so can we. Over the past decade social justice organizers have become more skilled and effective at moving against secondary targets — those individuals and institutions which support the primary target in one way or another. For administrators, secondary targets are usually those whose tacit consent keeps everything moving smoothly: from the Board of Trustees to the company that processes payroll to local political elites to the school's accrediting organization.

5. Failure is inevitable. But that's okay.

The UAW pinned a lot of hopes on this organizing drive, which made it all the more heartbreaking when the vote fell short. It's something all activists and organizers experience far more often than feels fair. All the power maps, spectrums of allies, and tactic stars could point toward an inevitable, maybe even easy, victory, and at the end we can still stand there, shellshocked, wondering how in the world we failed.

But until we've won a just world we can't give up. Document your campaigns with recorded notes, photos, audio and video, down to the most mundane details. Pull people together for a post-mortem (whether you win or not) to figure out the lessons for next time. Keep kindled those crucial relationships developed over the campaign. And especially for graduating students, figure out how to impart these lessons to those you're passing the baton to.

The path to the incredible Québec student strike of 2012 was littered with failed campaigns, many of which organizers thought would surely be "the big one." Failures will only hurt us if we refuse to learn from them and grow.