Unions Need to Know Workers to Organize Them


The defeat of the United Auto Workers Union at the Volkswagen Plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., was a disaster. A disaster not just for UAW but for organized labor throughout the United States. Of course, it is just the latest string of defeats for labor not only in the South but in such formerly strong union states as Michigan and Wisconsin. And don’t think for a minute this is the end of it !

The postmortem on both sides of the issue has already started. Business, as usual, pretends as if the threats and intimidation reining down on the workers scaring the crap out of them had nothing to do with the vote. Understandably the union places total blame on threats and intimidation from both business and government.

“Workers in a democratic election just saw the union wasn’t in their interest,” claims right wing Republican Sen. Bob Coker of Tennessee. Oh sure, Senator! As “democratic” as if each worker had a gun to their head while voting. The Republican State Legislature and governor basically put out the word before the vote if workers selected the UAW all subsidies would be cut off going to their plant, effectively destroying all their jobs. Democratic election? I hardly think so!

While the union certainly does have a point it is also missing a major element for this loss — a component organized labor, including the UAW, does not comprehend and has not for the past 50 years. Buried down in a story I read following the defeat at the VW plant was a comment thrown out casually by one of the UAW staff in response to a question. He basically admitted that the organizing campaign had gone on for three years but the union had “never reached out and become part of the community.”

Huh? Unions are supposed to be organizations of workers, by workers and part of a worker’s community life. How does such an “oversight” happen? It has happened due to a basic flaw in how American organized labor has grown, developed and structured itself over the past century. A system that simply does not work any longer. No neutral observer can deny that the law, economy, political system and culture of the US work against unions and the working class. But even those of us who are pro-union would have to be wearing blinders not to see organized labor has brought many of its problems on itself.

Collective Bargaining is about power. The power of workers to have a say in their workplace. In the United States no one gives you power – you have to take it! And there is only one way to take power and that is to be organized! “Organized Labor” claims it is but the way it has operated makes one think of the oxymoron — “Military Intelligence”.

Knowledge provides a strong effective organization. To develop that kind of knowledge members of the organization must be educated to apply it. This would seem to be a no-brainer for unions the creators of some of the finest apprenticeship training programs in the country. But there seems to be a breakdown between the vocational education to do a job and education needed to run a labor organization. Unions are communal and must make it a priority to educate the public and build support for their cause beyond their membership.

Labor has done none of this. And the lack of public outreach and support appears to have been a direct cause of the VW plant defeat. Let me explain from the perspective of 30 years as a union representative. Because organized labor has failed (actually made no attempt) to educate a growing and increasingly exploited workforce every organizing effort must start on ground zero. I (for example) would never reject a union organizing effort as a worker because I was raised in a family that historically is pro-union. It is part of my “culture”. Simple concept don’t you think? Why can’t unions get it that they have to plow the field before they can plant anything? The UAW readily admits in the aftermath they were “defeated by anti-union Southern Culture.” But it goes beyond this.

Narcissistic behavior is like a deadly plague at every level of leadership in organized labor. It perverts the operation of how unions approach not only the public, perspective members but their own membership. It has caused unions, as far back as the 1880s, to agree to the boss’ game. It is the major reason labor has never developed a “Labor Party.” American Organized Labor – unlike European Unions — has always considered itself part of the system – a “partner” to business and government. As Christopher Lasch points out in his book, The Culture of Narcissism (1979), the economic man has given has given way to the psychological man of our times — “the final product of bourgeois individualism.”

Just as the working-class American votes Republican and against his own economic interests, unions have bought into “the system. The narcissist talks cooperation and teamwork yet harbors deeply anti-social impulses all the time praising respect for rules and regulations in the belief they do not apply to him. While fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim competition is unconsciously associated with an unbridled urge to destroy. This is why the most common reaction to internal union criticism or suggestions of change is “kill the messenger!”

The reasons the United Auto Workers Union lost in the Tennessee VW plant can be found by following a historical trail. A narcissistic path littered with top labor leadership’s declaimers of any interest in organizing workers beyond those already organized or remarks made just last September at the AFL-CIO Convention by those unions opposed to reaching out to political allied groups. Stay safe – don’t rock the boat – keep your head down – CYA! Maintain the fantasy of “equal status”.

Because the labor law allegedly granting workers the right to organize is deeply flawed and hardly democratic in any way, organized labor needs to take a look deeply at the ingrained thought process of its own detached inwardly focused “leadership.” It was always my experience the more workers knew about unions the stronger they supported them – but somebody has to tell them – doesn’t somebody?!

Why I would bet it probably would even work in Tennessee!

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Email wfjohnstonehs@wamail.net.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2014


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