Labor’s Southern Strategy
Once again, the United Auto Workers have been defeated in a union election at Nissan, this time in the rural town of Canton, Miss. After failed organizing drives at a Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., in 1989 and 2001, and at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2014, victory in the South continues to elude the UAW. To date, the union has yet to win a wall-to-wall union election at any non-U.S. headquartered automaker in the South.
Why does labor keep coming up short south of the Mason-Dixon Line? What strategies might work moving forward? Labor journalist Chris Brooks spoke with veteran union organizer Gene Bruskin to dissect these questions and explore the obstacles and opportunities unions face in organizing the South.
Brooks: Many companies pit nonunion workers in the South against unionized workers elsewhere in the country. For example, Boeing moved production of their 787 Dreamliner from union-strong Seattle to non-union, right-to-work South Carolina and then offered an ultimatum to the Seattle Machinists local: either open your contract and take concessions or we will move production of the next generation of jetliners to the South. After a contentious contract ratification vote, Seattle’s Boeing workers had their pensions frozen and suffered huge increases in their health care costs. Boeing, the largest and most profitable airplane manufacturer in the country, was able to force concessions on 30,000 workers in Seattle, the Machinists’ largest bargaining unit, by whipsawing them against thousands of non-union workers in South Carolina. [See Josh Eidelson, Conflicting Dreams: The strikes that made Boeing a national flashpoint, Dollars & Sense, September/October 2011.]
Similarly, the United Auto Workers (UAW) have suffered a deep decline in membership, from 1.5 million members in 1979 to less than 400,000 today. Unionized autoworkers have seen the industry’s standards eroded over the years due to the influx of non-union operations. Speaking in 2011, then-UAW-president Bob King said “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW.”
If unions want to protect their gains and win back what they have lost then they must organize in the South. Do you agree?
Bruskin: Completely, but I would add that it’s a much older problem. There was a moment in post-Civil War Reconstruction when slavery had ended and the industrial age was beginning: the transcontinential railroad was being built and massive industries started to be developed. It’s in this period that the National Labor Union (NLU) was formed. It was the first real, although short lived, attempt to bring trade unions together. Women were also organizing and forming unions in this period and suddenly there were four million free Black workers in the South, including skilled laborers who had worked as ship-builders and blacksmiths and other trades.
Women and Black workers who had organized unions went to the white male NLU in 1868-9 to urge them to organize all workers, saying that failure to do so would doom the labor movement to constant labor competition between unorganized women and Black workers on one side and organized white men on the other. Ultimately the NLU decided against including women and Black workers.
We’ve been paying the price every since. There have been continued efforts over the past century to organize the South, but usually not as part of a broader labor strategy, but as one shot organizing drives. There is more than one election at stake here, since the South operates both as an ocean of low-wage labor and political reaction.
Brooks: Since there aren’t many large-scale organizing drives these days and union membership is so low in the South, there’s a lot of media attention whenever a big Southern union vote comes up. The most recent example was the UAW’s failed organizing drive at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi. Based on my conversations with workers at Nissan, I think there were a few major reasons why the UAW failed. One was Nissan’s fierce anti-union campaign.
What we saw in Canton was a doubling down on the Chattanooga strategy. You might remember that the Auto Workers were defeated in their 2014 organizing drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., not by the company, which was ostensibly neutral, but by what was likely the largest and most expensive anti-union campaign ever waged by third-party groups. At Canton, the UAW faced what I called “the anti-union trifecta”: a hostile employer, business advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity—which sent out 25,000 mailers and produced videos for television and radio ads—and the Mississippi state government. Days before the vote, the Governor of Mississippi said "If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions."
A key lesson of the Volkswagen organizing drive was that even if the company claims to be neutral, the political and economic establishment of the South is not. The UAW has to go into every organizing drive in the South knowing that it will be the fight of their life. They union is not only going up against a hostile multinational corporation, but the entire political apparatus of the state and the business community.
So, on the one hand, I’m sympathetic when UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel describes the Nissan campaign as “one of the nastiest anti-union campaigns in the modern history of the American labor movement.” It was bad and Corporate America’s hostility towards unions should be the scandal of the industrialized world. But, on the other hand, that statement is kind of laughable because the conditions that the workers at Smithfield faced were so much worse.
Bruskin: Smithfield had experience working with unions, but intended to keep them out of the million-square foot plant in Tar Heel, N.C., which was the biggest hog slaughterhouse in the world. The company took over an enormous area of the state to raise the 8 million pigs a year they needed to supply the plant. This was part of the company’s strategy to gain a competitive advantage through vertical integration, controlling the production process from “squeal to meal.” It would have been very difficult for Smithfield to develop that kind of farming operation anywhere else in the country.
The first time the UFCW tried to organize the plant in 1994, they thought they could just go through the normal NLRB procedures. The company just unloaded on them. During the second election in 1997, the company brought in the Sheriff’s office, they stood outside the plant with armed rifles when people walked into work. During the vote, the lights went out in the plant when people were casting ballots. They beat up organizers. It was a massive, unrestrained employer campaign. It wasn’t public though, because the union was keeping it quiet outside of the plant and the company was exerting total control inside of it.
It took years before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the courts weighed in. It also took years before the union decided to engage in a big public campaign outside the plant to counter the company’s inside campaign. We put a lot of time, energy and resources into telling the story of the workers, not just in the plant. but also in an aggressive media campaign, also in the churches all around the state and in public places all along the East and Midwest, using key allies like Jobs with Justice. These stories put the company on the defensive. By making the oppression that workers faced in the plant synonymous with the Smithfield brand, we created a wall of public pressure to guard workers against the company’s attacks. I think we successfully exposed Smithfield’s actions in a way that hurt their brand, in a way that the UAW hasn’t seemed to be able to do to Nissan or Volkswagen.
Brooks: Another reason why the UAW failed at Nissan was because they failed to build a strong organizing committee that acted like a union on the shop floor before they won the election. This appears to have been a serious flaw in the UAW’s two previous organizing drives at Nissan, both in Smyrna, Tenn. One was in 1989 and the other in 2001. After the 2001 defeat at Smyrna, Bob King—then UAW vice president and head of the union’s National Organizing Department—admitted that the union ran the election with an organizing committee that was “substantially smaller than normal” because the union “thought the issues were so great” they didn’t need a full committee.
A similar lesson was obviously on display in Canton. According to organizing committee members I spoke with there, the committee was too small, was not representative of every department and every shift, and only half the committee was very active. On top of that, they went to a vote without having a supermajority signed up on cards. Do you agree that a strong organizing committee is the best defense against an employer’s anti-union campaign and that is a major reason for the UAW’s failure?
Bruskin: It was clear to us in the Justice@Smithfield campaign that you could not win relying solely on worker meetings and house visits or relying solely on a public community campaign that built lots of solidarity. We had to have a presence in the plant. The union had to be live on the job. One of the strongest arguments used by companies during a union drive—and this was definitely the case at Nissan—is to attack the union as an institution. Nissan made it out to be a fight between the company and some institution in Detroit. The company hopes to turn the union election into a question of whether the company or the UAW is good or bad. By doing so, they take away any sense that the union is the workers themselves in the plant. And while the union may say they are the workers, unless the workers in the plant see each other as the union while working on the job, then those third-party attacks can win.
At Smithfield, we put an enormous amount of effort into building visible activity inside the plant. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this is easy. It was extremely difficult, but in the end having workers see one another in collective action in a variety of ways, not being fired, and even winning things is how the union takes on a living presence and is not seen as some distant Big Union organization. The union becomes the person across the line from you. That makes an enormous difference in any union drive.
Brooks: According to both the UAW and workers I have spoken with, about 80 percent of the Nissan workforce is Black. At Nissan, the maintenance employees, which are the highest paid classification in the plant, were almost exclusively white and anti-union. So there were clear racial divisions in the plant. Beyond that, the UAW tried to connect the union election to the civil rights struggles for voting rights in the South. “Workers’ rights are civil rights” is a smart message because the right to a fair union election, free from a coercive and hostile anti-union campaign from the employer, should be a human right. The highpoint of the civil rights component to the organizing campaign was the March on Mississippi, where thousands marched in Canton to a rally where actor-activist Danny Glover, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and UAW President Dennis Williams spoke.
Bruskin: Race is a critical component in every Southern organizing drive. At Smithfield, the white workers were a minimal factor, because there were so few of them and they were largely in the maintenance department. We did have an enormous challenge with the language divide: About one half of the workforce was Latino and the other half was Black and the two couldn’t easily talk to one another. So overcoming that obstacle took a tremendous amount of focus. There is going to be some variation of this in many plants in the South.
It’s really important to figure out where the social groupings of workers are outside of the plant. Organizers can’t step foot in the plant and it can be very difficult to find out where workers live. At Smithfield, workers lived in a 50-mile-radius of the plant, so we were very active in the church. We included big name preachers like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and William Barber to give the campaign moral authority, but we also focused on moving the campaign into the in the churches where the workers actually were, so their own preachers would be talking directly to the workers with the message “we are behind you.” We went to the soccer clubs, where people played every Sunday morning. We also went to the Latino nightclubs. We built the union through communities that workers actually participate in. Local institutions can play a big role as workers are taking risky actions in the plant. We had a full-time minister and a full-time community organizer focusing on just building support with local Black and Latino institutions around Smithfield.
If activists feel isolated in the plant then they go home and their primary point of contact with the organizing campaign is a house visit, then the union never becomes more than an individual decision. I think there is a real question about how to turn a union drive into a movement, like the civil rights movement, which is led by workers who feel connected to something larger than themselves so they have the courage to face down the company’s hostility. So tying the organizing drive to the civil rights movement is a great idea, it is the right kind of idea, but it has to be real for the workers.
Brooks: One of the Nissan workers, Robert Hathorn, told me a story about anti-union activities led by workers in the lead-up to the vote. He said there was a worker that would stand outside the turnstiles at the entrance of the factory every morning with a bullhorn, shouting “Nissan is the giver of life!” and that he wakes up every morning and gives thanks to Nissan for giving him a chance. I believe Nissan socially engineers this kind of reaction. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country. The company chose to locate its factory in Canton, a town with a population of 13,000 people. They employ over 6,000 people at the plant and pay some of the highest blue-collar wages in the state. So the choice of where to locate the factory and how much to pay workers is all part of the company’s anti-union strategy.
The challenge for the union is to figure out how to raise workers’ expectations to the point where they are willing to take the kinds of risks that you are discussing, by taking action and making demands on the company rather than settling for what they have, even though what they have is better than what many people in their community have.
Bruskin: Even at Smithfield, which is in a different industry—so it didn’t come near to matching the kind of wages that are paid at VW or Nissan—the pay was higher than at the chicken plants in the area. Even though everyone always wants a raise, that can’t be the focus of an organizing drive. Wages are something that companies always play with in organizing drives. They make promises, they raise them to be competitive with the union that is organizing the workers. Instead, we have to figure out what key issues, other than wages, really upset people. At Smithfield, the key issue was safety. We organized safety fights inside the plant, department by department, during the organizing drive to challenge the dangerous conditions that workers faced.
In any union drive, anyone who is not a “yes” is a “no.” Action is the best measure of support, better than signing cards. If you try to organize an action on an issue in a department and only three people out of 25 in the department participate, then you probably have only three “yes” votes and everyone else is a “no.” Someone’s chances of voting for the union are pretty good if they are willing to sign their name on a petition to demand workplace changes and is then willing to march on the boss during their lunch break with 24 other workers to present that petition. If a worker does that, then the chances are really good that they will vote yes, especially if that action results in a win. The results are far better than if they just signed a card.
It sounds like Nissan made extensive use of captive-audience meetings. It’s crucial that workers take a stand during those meetings. It doesn’t take 10 workers, you can get two or three people to challenge management in those meetings and the company will put a stop to them or have to change tactics and have smaller and smaller meetings. The company can’t do anything to workers that speak up in those meetings because there are too many witnesses. But if I’m sitting there watching the company slam the union and the pro-union committee people are silent, I’m going to think to myself, “Man, these people are as scared as I am.” That’s a signal to me that the union is weak. Conversely, if I see someone standing up to the company, then I think to myself, “Wow, this woman is somebody who is going to speak up for me if I have a problem, and look at the company getting scared.” Those are moments when you figure out if you have the strength to even have an election. It’s a key measurement.
Brooks: You talked about the importance of an inside-outside strategy, where an outside strategy puts public pressure on the company, and that protects the workers organizing actions on the inside of the plant—using public pressure to stave off the worst of the company’s anti-union hostility. In the UAW campaign, I didn’t seem any sign of obvious leverage over Nissan’s bottom line. There were a limited number of protests at Nissan dealerships in the South, but not as part of any prolonged or nationally coordinated campaign to really pressure the company. The union also did not publicly attempt to leverage the power that workers have in the company’s logistics chain or at auto parts suppliers.
For example, the auto parts supplier Shiroki North America operates three non-union plants spread out over Tennessee and Georgia. Shiroki produces parts for multiple car companies and is the main supplier of certain door parts for four Nissan vehicle lines. Like many auto parts companies, Shiroki does not produce parts that are then warehoused until an auto maker needs a shipment, but instead relies on just-in-time production and only produces enough parts at any one time to cover a limited number of production shifts at the companies they supply to, including Nissan. I spoke with an employee at the Shiroki plant who said the company attempts to maintain a one and a half day stock, so if they had a three-day shutdown it would disrupt the supply chain and Nissan’s production process. Due to the fragility of the just-in-time production process, organizing workers and engaging in strategic work stoppages at auto part suppliers would be heavily disruptive to the companies that are reliant on them.
The entire just-in-time production process is a result of auto makers squeezing suppliers. The suppliers then squeeze their workers. So workers in auto parts plants are often working under even worse conditions for even lower pay and fewer benefits than auto workers in the large auto production facilities. So it seems like there is a good possibility that the union could have more success in organizing these parts suppliers.
You would think that the UAW would be interested in leveraging the weaknesses in the company’s global production process so they could at least try and pressure the company into not engaging in some of the more heinous anti-union behavior.
Bruskin: The UAW would have had to organize the parts suppliers first if they were to have that kind of leverage. Those would have been tough fights. The fundamental question of how to apply leverage to a company in a way that can actually an impact on how they handle their campaign is crucial.
At Smithfield, it was only after running two elections where the union got the crap kicked out of them and years of fruitless efforts at the NLRB that the UFCW finally decided that the only way to get a fair election where the company didn’t go absolutely crazy on the workers, like Nissan did, is if the union waged a public campaign against the company.
That’s different from a community campaign where leaders just take public stands saying “we’re with you.” Even if they are respected civil rights leaders or Bernie Sanders. The question has to be: what will it take to force the company into making an agreement with the union that recognizes the organizing rights of workers? At Smithfield, we won that agreement by going after the company in a variety of ways. We took the campaign to all of the outlets where their products were being sold and marketed. We talked about how Smithfield pork is packaged with abuse. The company was spending millions on their brand and we were damaging it by simply telling the truth. We did that internationally as well. In the end we got an agreement for an NLRB supervised election but with additional protections against company abuses. It was those additional rules that made it possible for us to win.
Brooks: One of the contrasts between the Volkswagen and Smithfield campaigns was that the UAW worked behind the scenes with the labor community in Germany to craft a deal with Volkswagen that resulted in a neutrality agreement, so it came down from on high, while the Smithfield workers had to engage in a long series of escalated collective actions that included the broader community and consumers to win a neutrality agreement with the company. One of the serious concerns I have with the current campaign that the UAW is running at Nissan is that the union seems to be hoping that all the media attention Nissan received for their hostile anti-union campaign and the unfair labor charges that the union has filed will convince the French government to push for neutrality at the company. The French government is the largest shareholder in Renault and Renault is the largest shareholder in Nissan. So the UAW seems be engaged in some top-down political maneuvering to force the company into neutrality, but once again it won’t be a victory won by the workers themselves.
Bruskin: All aspects of the campaign, including the public campaign, have to be involve workers at every level. It’s not hard to imagine Nissan going back into the plant and telling the workers that the UAW is working with the French government to overturn their election decision or something like that. It’s easy to third-party the union when workers are not involved.
Brooks: Nissan has a three tier workforce. In the top-tier are “legacy” employees. These were hired by Nissan when the plant first opened 14 years ago. They are paid the highest wage tier, receive the best healthcare benefits and fringe benefits like vacation time. About 40% of the plant is estimated to be temporary workers, which are employed by secondary companies and they constitute the bottom tier. In the middle tier are “pathway” workers, which started as temps but then were hired on by Nissan as direct employees of the company, but they can never top out at the same pay rate as legacy workers and they receive less generous benefits. The UAW’s organizing drive did not focus on organizing temp workers, it focused solely on organizing those workers employed directly by Nissan rather than organizing everyone and claiming that Nissan is a joint employer under the Browning-Ferris decision made by the Labor Board. So about 40% of the workforce, the ones in the plant who actually face the most exploitation, were written off in the campaign. Making the organizing even more difficult was the fact that many of these temps were performing the same jobs on the same lines as the employees that work directly for Nissan, so that meant that the only way to distinguish between the two was for the organizing committee in the plant to make sure they had an accurate list.
Bruskin: That definitely sounds like a setup that favors the employer. What happens when Nissan gives all the temps anti-union tshirts and then the workers on the fence think that thousands of their coworkers are against the union?
At Smithfield, one of the biggest challenges was huge turnover, hundreds of workers every month. You could go out and have a hundred good house visits in a week, which would be enormously difficult because workers are spread out over large distances in rural areas. And then the next week, thirty of those people could be gone and you would never know. It’s not like they call up the union to tell them that they are leaving. That was not a temp situation, but it was an enormous challenge because there was no way to have a complete list when half the people you visit in August are no longer working for the company in September.
Of course we have to stay on top of our lists as best we can, but what really has the greatest impact is building as strong a committee presence inside the plant as you can. That is something you can control. If you decide you can’t organize the temps, and I don’t know how the UAW handled this, then the committee are the ones you have to rely on to determine who is not a temp and who is not. In a plant that is that big with that many departments and multiple shifts, you would have to organize a committee that is truly representative. It’s a huge challenge. This is also why taking action to get the company to the table and win an election agreement can be necessary, because there are just so many factors working against the union.
Brooks: And if you don’t build the union leading into the election, how can you expect for workers to suddenly act like one after they win? And in the South, in a right-to-work state, we know that the employer’s campaign against the union isn’t going to end after the election. The company will be constantly putting pressure on workers to drop the union.
Bruskin: We aren’t just trying to win an election. We’re also trying to win a first contract, to build a strong local, and everything you do from the beginning has an impact on those second and third stages of the campaign. The laws are against us. The employer is fighting you. The Governor and Koch brothers are weighing in. And organizers struggle to just get workers to sign a card or just to get their name and address or get them to attend a meeting. And even if you win the union, it’s not unusual for the company to appeal and slow everything down and then fight to keep the union from getting a first contract, or at least from getting a good contract. So you can win the election only to get a bad contract and then workers drop their membership in the union, because you are in the right-to-work South. So to be thinking as far down the line as the first contract and establishing a strong local is immensely challenging, but in this environment it is necessary. But it can be done and for labor’s future, it must be done.
Chris Brooks is a former Southern organizer and covers the UAW for Labor Notes.
Gene Bruskin was the campaign director for the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Justice@Smithfield campaign, which resulted in the successful unionization of 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Foods hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2008. At the time, it was the largest successful private union election in decades and the largest victory in UFCW history.
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