Auto Workers and Class War: The South Stands Up
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Author: Liberation Staff
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Auto workers have unleashed an unprecedented drive to organize the entire auto and battery manufacturing industry – particularly in the South. Following the historic “Stand Up” strike last fall led by the United Auto Workers, the southern organizing drive has spread like wildfire to encompass 150,000 auto workers at 14 companies across Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, and more. Now, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee — who recently achieved supermajority support on union authorization cards — are gearing up for the first union recognition election of this wave on April 17-19. Workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, also just hit a supermajority on cards and have filed for election.  

The workers are battling auto companies and state officials alike to win union recognition and life-changing improvements at the workplace. But the southern auto workers’ offensive also represents a decisive new front in the class war for our future. With enormous potential to transform and revitalize the U.S. labor movement, the drive has broad significance in three respects: as a showdown over a critical sector of the regional and national economy; as a drive with explosive potential to catapult working class organization and power to new heights in the South; and as a battle over who benefits from new technologies like electric vehicles (EVs) – the vast majority of people, or the wealthy few?  

Seismic shifts in a linchpin of the Southern and U.S. economy

Auto manufacturing represents a major section of the U.S. economy, contributing 3.5% to the overall U.S. gross domestic product. Due to its highly integrated supply chain, auto manufacturing is a job multiplier, with each auto worker’s labor directly supporting eight other jobs in the economy. Moreover, about two-thirds of new cars sold in the United States are produced here, and 76% of U.S. workers still primarily commute by car. It is no surprise, then, that the UAW’s Stand Up strike at the “Big 3” auto manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) cost the U.S. economy over $10 billion over six weeks last fall.

At the same time, the industry is undergoing a rapid and seismic shift to EV and battery manufacturing. Indeed, 10% of new car sales are now EVs, and nearly one in three people are “very likely” to consider buying an EV for their next car. Furthermore, battery manufacturing is expected to add tens of thousands of new jobs in the coming years, largely replacing existing engine and transmission jobs as the industry shifts primarily to EV production. 

In search of ever-increasing profits, auto companies have for decades been moving production facilities to the South (and to Mexico following the NAFTA trade agreement), where they can take advantage of super-low wages and union densities. But now, auto companies are taking particular advantage of the EV and battery transition to dramatically accelerate the process of moving production South and driving down wages and working conditions. 

majority of battery manufacturing and new EV plants in the U.S. – as well as two-thirds of new EV-related jobs – will be in the South, particularly concentrated in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. The transition to EVs is also poised to transform commercial vehicle production: the largest shareholder in Rivian – a growing EV manufacturer with a plant in Illinois and a massive new plant under construction in Georgia – is AmazonRivian is producing Amazon’s fleet of electric delivery vans; 10,000 have been rolled out so far, with another 90,000 planned.  

With the gravity of the industry shifting decidedly South and towards EVs, the UAW southern organizing drive is existential for auto workers and the entire working class. But this new concentration of critical manufacturing facilities in the South has also presented a strategic opening to organize the region.   

The South stands up

Building off the momentum of the Stand Up strike, 150,000 auto workers are now organizing at Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda, Volvo, and Kia, as well as EV companies Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid. In addition to traditional and electric vehicle manufacturing and assembly plants, the union is organizing EV battery manufacturing plants. Worker enthusiasm is incredibly high, with 10,000 workers across dozens of plants signing cards to join the UAW in the first 90 days alone.

The union is pursuing an aggressive strategy for the organizing drive to harness workers’ energy. The drive is unprecedented in that it is organizing every single company in the entire industry at once, and doing so in the South – the bastion of racist super-exploitation and brutal union busting by corporations and the state. To meet the task, the UAW is advancing the same militant, class struggle-based unionism that won the Stand Up strike. Moreover, UAW workers are investing an incredible $40 million dollars over the next two years to provide the necessary resources to go toe-to-toe with the big multinational corporations and right-wing state governments. This is one of the largest investments ever by the labor movement to organize the South. For comparison, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations initiated “Operation Dixie” in 1946 – what then-CIO president Philip Murray called “the most important drive of its kind undertaken by any labor union in the history of this country” – several unions together contributed $1 million ($16 million in today’s dollars) and 200 organizers to organize the entire South, particularly the textile industry.  

The union has also developed what they call the “30-50-70” strategy to focus and sustain the drive at scale across dozens of plants spanning several states. The union has drawn lessons from organizing attempts in the 2010s at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, and Nissan plant in Mississippi, that were all defeated by brutal anti-union campaigns by the companies and states. This time is different: the “30-50-70” method is designed to build strong worker organizing committees that are equipped to withstand the anti-union campaign, defeat the company and state, and win a strong union and great contract. The plan involves building an organizing committee and going public with the campaign once 30% of workers sign cards. Once 50% sign cards, workers at the plant hold a rally with UAW President Shawn Fain. And once 70% sign cards and the organizing committee has a member “from every department, line, and shift,” the union demands recognition or takes it to a National Labor Relations Board election. 

So far, four plants have gone public. In addition to the Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Mercedes workers in Vance, Alabama, workers at Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, and at Toyota in Troy, Missouri, have both hit 30%. Dozens more plants are close behind. 

Not to be lost with all this new organizing activity, 7000 UAW workers at Daimler Truck (who build Freightliner and Western Star trucks, and Thomas Built buses) across Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, are gearing up to go on strike – authorized by a resounding 96% – if the company does not come to terms by the time their contract expires on April 26. 

Super-exploitation and underdevelopment in the South

Why is the organizing drive exploding in momentum right now? Certainly, workers all around the country have been inspired to fight by the enormous wins of the Stand Up strike, and UAW leadership has met the moment. For example, UAW organizing materials indicate that by the end of the new contract in 2028, UAW workers at Ford will make a top rate that is 32% higher than Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga. Moreover, Volkswagen workers would have made an additional $23,000 last year if they had the same profit-sharing agreement that Ford workers won. Likewise, by 2028, the starting rate of UAW-General Motors workers will be 39% higher than the current starting rate at Tesla. 

But the union drive has also served as a political vehicle to channel workers’ longstanding frustration at the cascading issues they have always faced under capitalism in the South. 

Even today, the South remains so underdeveloped that it is like another country. Life expectancies are decades lower in the South than in other regions of the country. The region has the lowest wages, the lowest union density, the fewest workplace protections, the least environmental protections, and the fewest civil rights. South Carolina (2.3%) and North Carolina (2.7%) have the lowest overall union membership rates of any states in the country; the rest of the South isn’t much better. Intense voter suppression, particularly of poor and Black people, leave workers with no political representation through the electoral system to address their issues. In Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” the primarily poor and Black region along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, people have for decades faced cancer rates that are up to 50 times higher than normal due to industrial petrochemical pollution. In the Black Belt region of Alabama, a complete lack of sewage processing has left the population riddled with infections once thought to be eradicated from the human population. A UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights even described this level of poverty and underdevelopment as unprecedented in the Global North. 

It’s in this context that the full weight of the auto companies’ mistreatment of workers becomes clear. While racist and capitalist exploitation makes the South the poorest and sickest part of the country – and while Volkswagen’s and Mercedes’s profits have skyrocketed by 60% and 200%, respectively, over the past few years – workers at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant get no sick days whatsoever and are given “points” whenever they miss work due to an emergency, costing workers their hard-earned bonuses. Volkswagen also forces its workers to use their paid time-off (or go unpaid) during production shutdowns or any time the company arbitrarily decrees it. At the Toyota engine plant in Troy, Missouri, workers are forced to work long hours to exhaustion and routinely sustain acute and chronic injuries at work. Both Hyundai and Mercedes in Alabama have imposed a two-tier system that especially exploits temporary workers, who make the least money and have the least job stability. The Hyundai workers in Montgomery also lack meaningful retirement benefits. All of this comes at the expense of the workers’ health, quality of life, and time with their children and family. 

Attacked, exploited, and mistreated for decades at their workplace and in their communities by greedy corporations and wealthy white supremacists, southern auto workers have had enough. And they are building their unions to fight back. 

The South as key to social and economic transformation in the U.S.

From slavery and indentured servitude, to Jim Crow and continued poverty and Black oppression today, the South has always been a stronghold for white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate interests – a hegemony built upon structural racism, widespread disenfranchisement, and super-exploitation of the entire southern working class. Under capitalism, the wealthy elite and powerful corporations – driven to maximize profits – freely move production to wherever labor is cheapest and where workers have the fewest rights and the fewest means to fight back. That means that lower wages in the South drive wages down everywhere; lower union density in the South weakens unions everywhere; and the elimination of basic rights in the South erodes them everywhere. In this way, Southern exploitation has always been a boon for the capitalist class, and a reactionary drag for the entire U.S. working class. 

It’s for precisely this reason that the South has always been the detonator of progressive and revolutionary class struggle to transform the entire country. Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance. And if you build up the South, you raise the floor and uplift the entire country. This is seen clearly from the general strike of enslaved Black workers who joined the hundred of thousands who took up arms to win the Civil War, to Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Within progressive mass movements in the South, labor has always been an essential pillar. In 1943 – six years after the Flint Sit-Down Strike by auto workers that won widespread recognition for the UAW – Black women in Winston-Salem, North Carolina – such as Theodosia Simpson and Moranda Smith – organized and led a (one-day) sit-down strike of thousands of Black and many white workers at the largest tobacco plant in the world. The strike continued, and the mostly Black women workers ultimately defeated the Reynolds Tobacco Company and government to form the militant Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA). Merging labor and civil rights activism, Local 22 became the backbone of multinational class struggle in the region. In addition to fighting poverty and exploitation in the tobacco plants, Local 22 provided the organizational structure to build the largest NAACP chapter in North Carolina; ran voter registration campaigns that increased by 10-fold the number of Black registered voters in the area; and organized city-wide community meetings, rallies, and political education. It’s worth noting that, similarly to the early organization of the auto industry and the Flint Sit-Down Strike, this brand of militant, multinational, and class struggle-based unionism arose from and in large part succeeded due to its committed communist leadership. The Communist Party had 150 members in Winston-Salem at the time, most of whom were Black tobacco workers, and many of whom were union shop stewards or leaders in Local 22 – such as Smith and Simpson. Twenty years after the tobacco workers went on strike, 250,000 people would rally in the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized in large part by A. Philip Randolph, a long-time labor leader with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Notably, the UAW was the single biggest contributor to the March, and also provided major funding to the NAACP, Montgomery Improvement Association, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Students for a Democratic Society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it: “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs.”

The reason the labor struggle has been so important to social movements is that it endows them with structural economic power to win working class demands, and provides a means to forge powerful multinational working class unity through shop floor struggle against a common class enemy. It is these sources of power – and particularly the prospect of a strong, well-organized, multinational working class movement – that particularly threatens the white-supremacist, capitalist domination of the South. 

This is why corporate and government elites have always brutally repressed any working class movements, particularly ones that united poor Blacks and whites. For example, in the 1890s, a powerful working class coalition of poor Black and white workers emerged in North Carolina through shared labor struggles via the Knights of Labor and Farmers’ Alliance. This movement culminated in the formation of the People’s (Populist) Party and Fusion ticket which swept control of the state government in 1894 and 1896. Fearing this rise of working class power, wealthy white businessmen and large landowners – including the textile and tobacco barons like R. J. Reynolds, whose plant FTA Local 22 would later organize – led a violent coup in 1898 to cement their hegemony over the working class, and imposed Jim Crow segregation to keep workers divided. Likewise, following the powerful rise of unions in the 1930s and 1940s, and recognizing the critical role that communists played in building strong working class movements, white supremacist and corporate interests waged an all-out war to divide Black and white workers and eliminate all communists from the labor movement. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act made it illegal for communists to be in union leadership, which destroyed Local 22, and the broader anti-communist hysteria led to tactical missteps that contributed to Operation Dixie fizzling out. In addition, wealthy elites – publicly led by Texas lobbyist and white supremacist Vance Muse, who also worked to dismantle women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and the eight-hour work day – imposed racist “right-to-work” laws throughout the South as a way to reinforce Jim Crow segregation and divide workers. These onslaughts were specifically intended to destroy union strength, divide the working class, and reduce wages, particularly for Black workers.  

This twin corporate-state strategy of Southern elites to wage war on the working class continues today in the UAW organizing drive. Beyond standard union busting tactics, states like TennesseeAlabamaSouth Carolina, and Mississippi have attempted to sow fear through outright intimidation by governors and legislators. Additionally, the corporate-backed governments routinely hold state (i.e., taxpayer-funded) incentives to the companies hostage on the condition of workers voting no to their own union – implying that the plant may close or that the workers might lose their job if they vote yes. In the current drive, companies like Volkswagen and Mercedes, and the respective state governments, have brought in the right-wing National Right to Work Foundation to run vigorous anti-union campaigns as well. 

Labor organizing in the South is inherently not just a fight against the boss, but a political struggle against the entire racist, capitalist system and state apparatus. And Southern auto workers are determined to take on the challenge. As the Hyundai workers put it when they publicly announced their drive: “Welcome to Montgomery, Alabama … The city where Rosa Parks sat down. And the city where thousands of Hyundai workers are ready to Stand Up.”

The battle over technology

The final key dimension to the UAW’s southern organizing drive is that it’s a showdown over technology. The working class has effectively paid twice for the new EV and battery manufacturing plants being built in the South. First, as the UAW has pointed out, through hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to the companies. And second, through the super-exploitation of poverty wages and abysmal working conditions while producing the very technology that’s being sold. Auto workers are naturally raising the question, then, of who specifically will benefit from the electrification of the auto industry? A handful of corporations and Wall Street executives making enormous profits? Or will all people benefit through improved wages, working conditions, livelihoods, and employment? 

Ultimately, these are questions that will be settled through the class struggle. In the Stand Up strike, the UAW won coverage going forward of all General Motors and Stellantis battery plants under the master agreements, following card check in those plants. The union also won similar arrangements at Ford’s Marshall Plant in Michigan and Tennessee Electric Vehicle Center, as well as significant new production commitments from all of the Big 3 to produce more EVs at UAW plants.   

The UAW’s fight over EV and battery production could have widespread ramifications over similar battles in other advanced manufacturing industries. Similarly to EV and battery manufacturing, semiconductor chip manufacturers are also setting up shop in the South to take advantage of the poverty wages, low union density, weak labor and environmental regulations, and massive taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Of the 87 newly announced chips facilities or manufacturing expansions, 18 will be in the South, and 22% of new U.S. chips manufacturing jobs (over 11,000 jobs) will be in the South. (Separately, 19 new facilities are planned in Arizona alone, despite the enormous amounts of water required for chip manufacturing and a drying Colorado River.) While numerically smaller in employment than auto manufacturing, advanced chips have become indispensable to virtually all modern digital devices and artificial intelligence applications – so much so that U.S. imperialists are instigating war with China over chips production in Taiwan (where most advanced chips are produced today). 

The rise of advanced manufacturing in the South today in some ways mirrors the shift of the South over the first half of the 20th century from feudal agricultural society to an industrial mix of mining, textiles, tobacco, logging, paper, and steel. These new developments mean that the South will remain a critical front in the class struggle over how technology is used moving forward.    


Any serious discussion of building a powerful labor movement today has to honestly reckon with the fact that, despite an incredible upsurge in labor militancy and organizing, the percentage of union membership in the United States continues to decline. But there is reason for optimism: 60 million workers in the United States today want a union but aren’t in one. With such enormous, but latent, potential to organize, it’s worth asking: what does the auto workers’ southern organizing drive mean for the labor movement as a whole?

The history of the 1930s stimulates our imagination of what’s possible. In one year following the 1936-1937 Flint Sit-Down strike, the UAW exploded in membership from 30,000 to 500,000. In 1930s Alabama, Black communists organized iron ore miners, a Sharecroppers Union, and several unemployed councils, uniting poor Black and white workers in strong, militant organizations. In addition, once Alabama coal workers fully organized their mines in the 1930s – a key industry in the state – they catalyzed, with varying success, the “wall-to-wall” multinational organization of many other industries in Alabama, including woodworkers, textile workers, farmers, washerwomen, teachers, and longshoremen. By 1945, in the depths of Jim Crow, 25% of Alabama workers were unionized – higher than any U.S. state today. 

Conditions today are different and we cannot predict precisely what will happen next. But if history is any indication – and with the crises of capitalism causing more and more people to want to fight back – a decisive victory by the southern auto workers could very well usher in a revitalized new era for the labor and progressive working class movements in the U.S. 

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