James Fearon (Socialist Democracy-Ireland) argues that a lost vote for United Automobile Workers union recognition at Chattanooga in Tennessee shows US workers distrust of union partnership policies while Walmart and fast food workers illustrate power of rank and file organisation. He also draws some parallels with UNITE, which organises workers throughout these islands.

UAW puts US corporate interests before those of its members
UAW puts US corporate interests before those of its members

Recent events have revealed that the established conservative leadership of the trade union movement is faced with a dilemma. The era of relatively low class conflict is closing and the trade union bureaucracy is under attack from both the working class and the capitalists. The scant regard shown for Unite’s bureaucratic leadership by Ineos has now been added to by a slap in the face from the working class, this time administered to the United Auto Workers bureaucracy by the workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

When the defeat in the poll to introduce the UAW to the car plant became obvious the union apparatus was quick to claim that their defeat could be put down to the intervention of right wing politicians, or to an innate southern conservatism. That the Republicans launched an offensive is undoubtedly true. A Washington based anti-union organisation, the ‘National Right to Work Legal Foundation’ dispatched two Lawyers to Chattanooga to address communities and provide free legal advice to workers. A Nashville based organisation, ‘The Beacon Center of Tennessee’ held a town hall meeting, with 75 community leaders in attendance, agitating for a no vote. The ‘Center for Worker Freedom’, a Right wing anti union campaign group and affiliate of the Washington based ‘Americans for Tax Reform’, bought up every available billboard in the town and campaigned hard among the community. The ‘Competitive Enterprise Institute’ also associated with the ‘Center for Worker Freedom’ had been working since last spring organising local events and having opinion pieces published.

On top of this, vociferous campaigns were launched by the Republican political elite threatening the withdrawal of state funds and the loss of a contract to build a new SUV at the plant – something denied by the company CEO.

But what did the UAW expect; why would a union that meant what it said about protecting workers from greater exploitation expect any different? The Right should be expected to attack any organisation that purports to defend the working class. The most important question to arise from this debacle, however, is why did the working class not support the UAW in sufficient numbers? No meaningful answer is forthcoming from the stunned UAW leadership, the simple reason being that apart from the fact that union bureaucracies are never self critical they are also ideologically reformist and closely identified with a ‘pragmatic’ approach to the necessities of capitalist economics. This means that they must seek explanations for their defeat that does not clash with their reformist economic and political perspective, but this economic ‘realism’ is at the heart of their defeat in Chattanooga.

Keeping down labour costs

Among the workers at the plant the UAW is recognised as being in the business of keeping down labour costs, and at present wages are higher at the Chattanooga plant than at the Ford, GM and Chrysler plants, ‘the big three’, already organised by the union. The union leadership also stated in their election agreement with VW that they had already agreed to “maintaining and where possible enhancing’ VW’s cost advantages”. Given that the union cannot effect the cost of raw materials this can only mean the cost of labour, and this was apparent to many of the workers there who feared that the union had already sold them out. Copper-fastening this was another clause in the contract that if the UAW and VW did not come to an agreement “in an appropriate period of time” an outside arbitrator would be appointed who could dictate terms.
Any autonomy the Chattanooga workers had in deciding their own destiny within the plant had already been signed over to a compulsory arbitrator that would be chosen by the union bureaucracy and the company. This arbitrator would then have binding powers to decide what their pay and conditions would be. The workers had already been cut out of the loop before the union had even been introduced. No wonder VW was enthusiastic and many of the workers unimpressed.

While the Right’s campaigning was vigorous, organising outside the plant in the communities, both pro and anti UAW campaigners agree that the conservative drive alone cannot be blamed for the defeat. Complaints from workers in the plant show this plainly. Pro union workers, made nervous by the public assault on the union in the media and in the community, were severely critical of the union’s lack of support for their attempts to match the conservatives campaigns in the communities. The UAW, described diplomatically as ‘lukewarm’, froze out local efforts to oppose the virulently anti union campaigns organised by the Right. At one pro-union organising meeting attended by 150 community activists only 3 UAW members turned up. Activists found it difficult to engage with a union which completely ignored their overtures.

This fear of independent rank and file activity is common to the entire bureaucratic leadership of the trade union movement and the need to take a risk by stirring up the masses is avoided usually by a process of ‘managing’ workers’ expectations; tough talk followed by negotiation and a retreat informed by ‘realism’ which usually culminates in a less than favourable compromise.

Neutrality agreement

In this case the UAW felt they did not need to campaign among workers with any degree of vigour because they had a ‘neutrality agreement’ in place with the management. But what was the relationship between the UAW bureaucrats and the management that allowed this deal to take place based on? The answer is revealed in the conscious philosophy of the UAW, indeed trade union bureaucracies in general. Bob King responded in interview that,

“Our philosophy is that we want to work in partnership with companies to succeed. Nobody has more at stake in the long-term success of the company than the workers on the shop floor, both blue collar and white collar. With every company that we work with, we’re concerned about competitiveness”.

Bob King, along with Len McCluskey and the union bureaucrats in general agree on this. But capitalism is a competitive system that in order to be competitive chews up workers and spits them out. That is why trade unions were formed in the first place, to ameliorate the effects of competition on the industrial workforce. People were once crushed in unsafe mines, children were put up chimneys and today children are crammed in to unsafe factory buildings in Bangladesh, all in the name of competitiveness. It is workers slaving in these miserable conditions that are providing the benchmark for western ‘competitiveness’ and American wages have a long way to fall if they are to become competitive with the cheapest of global capital’s labour, how will the UAW deal with that?

In the present crisis the cost of labour is of crucial importance to capitalist profitability. It is the squeeze on workers’ wages that has produced the recent, very stunted, economic growth in the US and Europe. To increase the rate of that growth the exploitation rate must be raised. An urgent drive is being carried out by capitalism to destroy dead or unproductive capital and to lower labour costs. This is what is driving American wages towards the bottom and the approach of the labour bureaucracies, raised with the notion that no alternative to capitalism can be countenanced, are doing what they always did, trying to accommodate the system and fit in to their own comfortable little niche. However this is no cyclical slump, the system has hit serious difficulties and the working class must suffer more than usual, no problem for well paid bureaucrats, but misery for low paid workers.

For capitalism this is not business as usual, they dispensed with the services of Unite at Grangemouth, but the working class have also began to raise their voices, this time in Chattanooga, where the prospect of being managed not just by the company but also by a pro company union bureaucracy did not appeal to them. The Right may be rubbing their hands in satisfaction at this result but their real advantage in all of this was that the union bureaucracy provided them with plenty of ammunition, especially through their betrayal of their members at the Ford, GM and Chrysler plants over the introduction of a two tier pay scheme. The big surprise is that there were so many workers at the Chattanooga plant who gritted their teeth and chose the union on principle, and that the gap in the vote was so narrow. The workers at the plant did not lose this vote, the UAW bureaucracy did!

Upsurge in struggle
But the greatest threat to the trade union bureaucracy’s position, which remains one of paralysis in the face of the capitalist crisis, is the initiative taken by the US’s most hard pressed, low paid workers. Despite the concerted capitalist push to make wages ‘competitive’ and the craven compliance of the trade union bureaucracies there is an upsurge in struggle among low paid workers, indeed this upsurge, and the UAW’s record at ‘the big three’, is partly the reason that the UAW bureaucracy’s ‘stabilising’ effect appeared attractive to the management at VW.

Intense struggles are erupting right across the US against the poverty level wages that are the basis of the ‘recovery’ but they are being led by “non union worker groups” such as ‘Organisation United for Respect at Walmart, [OUR Walmart]’ which campaigns for a living wage and improved conditions. Although they are associated with the ‘United Food and Commercial Workers Union’ and draw funding from the union they are relatively autonomous and can act spontaneously making them independent of the smothering affects of bureaucracy.

Workers at Walmart struggle to get above the minimum wage and suffer from an exceptionally arrogant management culture. According to Mary Watkines, an employee at the Seattle outlet, they suffer “intimidation and humiliation”, a recurring theme on a website set up to publicise workers’ stories of bullying and ill treatment, but they are beginning to fight back through a series of walkouts on key business days. The effectiveness of their walkouts is shown by the way in which their actions spread, a scheduled walkout by Walmart workers led to an announcement that the janitorial workers in a sub contracting firm would also walk out with them. The ‘OUR Walmart’ organisation, being free of highly controlled bureaucratic decision making processes, expanded quickly by using social media to communicate grievances to each other.

They have set up a website, (www.associatevoices.org) in which Walmart workers can anonymously request industrial action at their store and use social media to talk to each other nationally. A social media call for a conference led to immediate contact being made with the respondents, followed up by one-to-one phone calls, organisers being despatched and co-ordinated industrial action initiated once local support had been established. The system has expanded to include networks that deal with bullying, discrimination against LGBT employees and the mistreatment and dismissal of pregnant employees. Although Walmart management claims that the walkouts are having no effect, the workers’ actions are meeting with success, including, the transfer of one particularly notorious manager, the achievement of wage increases, 40 hour contracts for workers who don’t have them and even including, in at least one case, of workers being paid for the day they spent on strike. Their struggle continues.

Fast food workers are also in revolt. Workers at all the big name fast food outlets that exist on a minimum wage, of $7.25ph, are also paying the price for the, very limited, increase in US economic growth. They are campaigning for $15ph and union representation and are backed by the ‘Service Employees International Union’ [SEIU]. Like the Walmart workers they enjoy a great deal of autonomy in their actions which is also having a startling effect on their notoriously exploitative employers.

Using the competitiveness argument, so respected by the bureaucratic leadership of the UAW, the ‘National Restaurant Association’ says firms face “great uncertainty” and “calls to double the minimum wage only intensify the challenges faced by job creators”. This is a reference to the fact that these “billion Dollar” companies in the fast food and retail sector are providing part time jobs that are responsible for the recent growth in employment figures. These workers are up against a hugely powerful enemy which is being driven to attack them by a systemic economic failure. But these rank and file workers are showing the working class the way forward by the flexibility and immediacy of their response to the impoverishment of the working class and by the way in which they organise independently of the union apparatus which is left tail-ending the struggles and are reduced to the role of funders and supporters.

Their courageous stand against bullying corporations has exposed the inadequacy of the comfortable bureaucracies that lead the labour movement and has sent up a beacon for workers everywhere seeking a way to fight back against austerity.

The lessons for workers in Ireland are clear, we should organise independently of the union leaderships, build rank and file organisations across all unions, call our own industrial actions, demand that the trade unions leadership support our struggles and build towards a conference of resistance to austerity. The alternative, waiting for ICTU to act, resembles ‘Waiting for Godot’ and that is not an option!

11th March 2014

This article was first posted at:- US trade unions: Waiting for Godot