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labor The UAW’s Victory Can Serve as a Model

How did the UAW pull off its big Southern victory, the first time a union has succeeded in organizing a foreign-owned auto plant in the South? The UAW and Shawn Fain pursued five basic strategies to achieve this victory, and those steps could serve

When the UAW won the historic union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga this past Friday, it did something that many labor experts said couldn’t be done. For decades, unions have been told, “You can’t win in the South.” For decades, they’ve also been told that it’s next to impossible to unionize factory workers because they’re so terrified that their factories will close and move south of the border or overseas if they unionize.

But Shawn Fain, the UAW’s president, wasn’t buying any of that. The UAW won big at Volkswagen—2,628 for unionizing and 985 against—even though the union drive was in the South and even though it was a factory.

How did the UAW pull off its big Southern victory, the first time a union has succeeded in organizing a foreign-owned auto plant in the South? The UAW and Shawn Fain pursued five basic strategies to achieve this victory, and those steps could serve as a model for other unions across the United States.

The crucial steps Fain and the UAW took that made the historic win happen can be distilled to the following: (1) create a new union culture that focuses on mobilizing members and on solidarity, (2) transform the union’s image, (3) make ambitious bargaining demands that you think are just, (4) be ready and willing to fight—and strike—to win those demands, and (5) use all this—a new union culture, a new union image, some important contract gains, and a fighting spirit—to go out and organize. (These may oversimplify the process a bit, because in truth, Fain and union staffers—as well as tens of thousands of rank-and-file members nationwide—have taken dozens, indeed hundreds of steps to achieve this historic victory at Volkswagen.)

As a first step, Fain and his team set out to do something very basic: they set out to transform the UAW’s culture so that it would be a culture of mobilizing and involving members—all with the goal of revving up the UAW. For far too long, Fain said, the UAW—once the nation’s most powerful union and once one of the most militant—had grown lethargic and reactive, and as a result, it too often knuckled under to management’s demands. Fain also repeatedly preached the importance of solidarity, knowing that greater solidarity means greater worker power and greater chances of success, whether at the bargaining table or in a strike. From day one, Fain signaled his intention to overhaul the UAW’s culture, to turn it into a fighting union, and he and his team have done that in spades.

Fain was helped by an important change that took place before he was elected UAW president. The union had suffered a horrendous and embarrassing corruption scandal in which UAW officials embezzled more than $3 million and two former UAW presidents and more than a dozen union officials overall were sentenced to prison. As a result of that scandal, an independent monitor was named to help clean up the union, and the UAW adopted a rule that, for the first time in its history, let rank-and-file members directly elect the union’s top officers—in part to ensure that the UAW’s leaders were more responsive to the union’s members.

One byproduct of this increased democracy was that it put an end to UAW leadership’s one-party rule that had dominated the union for nearly eighty years. Fain ran as an insurgent: not only did he put an end to the chummy, insular circle at the top, but as part of his campaign, he mobilized many rank-and-file UAW members who, like him, wanted a revved-up union. Direct elections—that is, union democracy—served as a much-needed medicine to inject huge amounts of new energy into the union.

Second, Fain and his team set out to transform the UAW’s reputation and image. They wanted to demonstrate not just to the union’s members, but also to workers the UAW hoped to unionize someday—and to the American public—that the union he led was vastly changed, and was a vastly better UAW.

For decades, the UAW had a reputation for granting concessions. As Detroit’s automakers struggled against foreign competition and nonunion Southern transplants, as General Motors and Chrysler sank into bankruptcy, the UAW agreed to swallow concession after concession, including a detested two-tier wage system and an end to the cost-of-living adjustments that workers greatly appreciated. When the UAW lost unionization votes at VW in Tennessee in 2014 and 2019 and when its union drives failed at Mercedes in Alabama and at Nissan in Mississippi, the union’s reputation for concessions badly undermined its chances of winning. As one VW worker in Chattanooga told me, “the union didn’t have anything on its plate for workers to look forward to.”

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The UAW’s image had another big problem: the union was badly tainted by a sprawling corruption scandal, which became public in 2017 when the first federal criminal charges were filed. From day one as a candidate, Fain made clear he was intent on overhauling the union and its image. He ran on a platform of no concessions, no tiers, and no corruption. Now, a year into his presidency, he has hugely transformed the UAW and its image. It has gone from the doghouse to a leadership position in labor.

Third, Fain took a far more aggressive, ambitious approach in contract negotiations. As soon as he announced the UAW’s demands for last year’s round of negotiations with Detroit’s Big Three automakers, it became totally clear that Fain’s UAW thought that the era of concessions was over and that it was time for contract gains. The contract demands Fain announced were unarguably ambitious: a 40 percent raise, higher pensions, a four-day workweek, and restoring cost-of-living adjustments. Fain was serious about winning gains that rank-and-file workers wanted and thought were just. He argued that if the automakers’ CEOs were receiving pay increases of 40 percent, why can’t rank-and-file auto workers receive the same, especially at a time when auto industry profits were soaring?

Fourth, Fain and UAW members showed that their newly aggressive union was ready to fight for what it believed in, that they were ready and willing to use the union’s most powerful weapon—the strike—to achieve their goals. Last September, six months after taking office, Fain led a historic strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (which owns Chrysler and Jeep). It was the first time that the UAW had gone on strike against all three Detroit automakers at the same time. This “Stand Up Strike” lasted six weeks and won far more than many labor experts thought possible: an across-the-board 25 percent raise over four-and-a-half-years, richer pensions, the return of cost-of-living adjustments, an end to the two-tier wage system, and a 68 percent increase in starting pay. Fain’s leadership showed that strikes deliver, that standing up delivers, that solidarity delivers.

Fifth, Fain and his team used the union’s huge contract victory with Detroit’s Big Three as a springboard, as a selling point to launch a hugely ambitious union drive, a drive also helped by profound changes in the union’s culture and image. The UAW announced in November that it would seek to unionize thirteen companies with non-union auto plants in the United States, including Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, and Tesla. Those thirteen companies have thirty-six plants in the United States, with a total of 150,000 workers, more than the 145,000 UAW members who work at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. In interviews, Volkswagen workers said a major reason they voted to unionize last week was to win for themselves what the UAW had won from Detroit’s Big Three.

In an interview I did with Shawn Fain on Sunday, he said, “The workers at VW are the first domino to fall. They have shown it is possible. I expect more of the same to come. Workers are fed up.”

Next up is a unionization vote at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, where 5,000 workers will vote from May 13 through 17. The Mercedes workers, not union officials, have taken the lead in that unionization effort. That’s part of another Fain strategy worth noting: his organizing department has jettisoned a top-down in favor of worker-driven, do-it-largely-yourselves organizing. That approach brings energy, engagement, and excitement. I would be remiss if I didn’t also note that Fain, his aides, and his advisers have been brilliant at using social media (and short videos) to get their message out every step along the way—to mobilize members, to build solidarity, and to win public support.

Nowadays, many labor leaders have bought into the conventional wisdom that it’s too darn hard to organize, partly because our labor laws are too weak and favor employers in many ways. As a result, many unions do little organizing. But even though our nation’s labor laws and courts are in ways tilted against unions, Fain and his team realized that if you don’t try to organize, you can’t win. One of his mottos could be: Unless you try, you can’t succeed.

Late Friday night in Chattanooga, after National Labor Relations Board officials had counted the ballots and declared that the UAW had won, Fain met with rank-and-file VW workers in a huge celebration. His first words were, “You all just all done the most important thing that a working-class person can do, and that’s stand up.”

The room erupted with applause. Later in his six-minute victory speech, Fain told the workers, “Many of the talking heads and the pundits have said to me repeatedly, before we announced this campaign, you can’t win in the South. They said Southern workers aren’t ready for it. They said non-union auto workers didn’t have it in them. But you all said, ‘Watch this,’ and you all moved the mountain. People said we couldn’t do it, and we done it because we stood together in solidarity and we stood up for justice.”

More huge applause. Yes, the VW workers moved the mountain, but Fain’s smart, focused efforts to rev up and remake his mighty union certainly helped make that happen.