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By Amaury Pineda, Policy Analyst, Jobs with Justice
On May 24, 2023, Dr. Stephen Silvia of American University School of International Service gave a book talk on his recently published book, The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants. The book talk was hosted by Jobs with Justice and catered by Moby Dick.
Using archives, newspapers, and interviews, Dr. Silvia shared some lessons from UAW organizing efforts in foreign companies in the US South. His findings indicate that while it is still possible to organize in the South, it has become harder. His research encompassed 16 organizing drives that took place in nine plants of four vehicle manufacturing companies – Nissan, Daimler Trucks North America, Mercedes US International, and Volkswagen – from 1984 to 2019.
First, Dr. Silvia unpacked the cases of two Nissan plants in Smyrna, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi, where the UAW failed to win a union, but for different reasons. In the case of Smyrna, TN, the UAW was unsuccessful mainly because of a set of anti-union innovations oriented at creating the idea that managers and the rank-in-file were all one. For example, they all wore the same uniform, and the company eliminated the executive cafeteria. The company also engaged in more aggressive tactics. For example, the company gave workers reduced-rate rental cars, screened workers to identify union sympathizers, installed monitors in the workplace through which they ran negative information about the UAW, and had one-on-one meetings to check on workers’ satisfaction. These tactics were part of the ‘Union Avoidance Playbook’ devised by Nissan’s Head of Operations, Marvin Runyon, and were key to preventing organizing efforts in this plant.
At the Canton, MS plant, the UAW used a new strategy that aimed to blend union organizing efforts with the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, the union failed to organize this plant. In Canton, workers had experienced considerable poverty before Nissan’s arrival and did not want to risk job security for the potential of better working conditions.
Dr. Silvia also explained how international cooperation can help in organizing efforts, highlighting the UAW’s success at Daimler Trucks North America in Mount Holly, North Carolina. After winning the union election and negotiating for their first contract for almost two years, the UAW realized they would have to strike. However, before doing so, a few of the union representatives traveled to Germany and managed to get the head of the Daimler Group Works Council, Karl Feuerstein, to support their cause. The UAW got its first contract about two months after Feuerstein phoned the American executives.
The case of the Mercedes US plant in Vance, Alabama, illustrates how a ‘split workforce’ diminishes organizing efforts. Dr. Silvia used the term ‘split workforce’ to refer to situations where half or so of the workers are temporary employees, and the rest are permanent workers. Notwithstanding UAW’s many efforts to organize Mercedes-Benz workers in the Alabama plant, their campaign never picked up steam because Mercedes’ permanent employees were paid above the UAW’s contract rate and also received many benefits.
In other words, permanent employees did not care to organize because they already had a good deal vis-à-vis their temporary colleagues who received low wages and no benefits. Although temporary workers had all the reasons to organize, they were kept in line under the promise of a permanent position, yet only a handful ever made it.
During the discussion, a DC LERA member mentioned the report “Job Quality and Community Well-Being in Mississippi and Alabama’s Manufacturing Facilities,” where the authors found that non-unionized workers face many other issues besides wages, such as work-family balance due to rotating shifts. When asked whether unions pay attention to these issues, Dr. Silvia noted that yes, he saw this phenomenon at different plants. For example, in Volkswagen Chattanooga, the main discussion still is paid time off, and at Nissan, itis workplace injuries. The UAW paid attention to issues that resonate with workers to make the case for organizing.
See HERE for a more detailed version of this report.