The United Auto Workers (UAW) suffered a historic defeat in a union election at Nissan’s sprawling assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi in early August. Much has been written about the company’s overwhelming opposition to the union drive as well as some of the missteps the UAW took in its campaign.
Given the labor movement’s overall falling density across the United States since the 1950s, the abysmal success rate in NLRB-sponsored union elections, and some of the more high profile recent defeats, it’s clear that what has become the normal way of going about winning union representation isn’t working.
The labor movement should see this moment as a wake up call, and launch a frank discussion about what works and what doesn’t, and what kind of strategies unions should adopt if they ever hope to regrow their strength, let alone expand into regions beyond the traditional bastions of union strength. Given the crushing defeat of the Machinists at Boeing and the UAW at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN in the past few years, there’s urgency to the discussion — particularly to organizing the solidly anti-union South.
What Happened at Nissan?
As at Nissan, employer hostility and resistance against unionization campaigns is oftentimes overwhelming. Unlike other countries around the world, US employers have tremendous power and legal flexibility to oppose unionization. It’s no secret that labor law is heavily stacked against US workers, and the “union avoidance” industry in the United States is now a multi-million dollar industry as firms spend tremendous sums of money on union-busting lawyers and consultants who provide everything from legal advice to armed security guards to “permanent replacements” (otherwise known as scabs).
The UAW knows the hostile landscape and should’ve expected a ferocious response from the company. Despite doing many things right, like establishing and building strong ties with local faith and community groups in Canton, Mississippi, Nissan’s resistance overcame the campaign and delivered a lopsided vote against union representation.
One way Nissan undercut union support was through paternalism, a managerial strategy that sets the company up as the political and social leader in a community — by tying workers and their families together through patronage, community leadership, and control. Nissan workers received higher wages (for the region), affordable leases on brand new cars (with costs deducted from workers’ paychecks), and multiple local community sponsorships. The strategy is quite different from that of employers like Amazon or Walmart, who operate by ruthlessly cutting costs and ruling through fear.
Simultaneously, Nissan workers were barraged by threats that a unionized plant would close. These came from all sides — foremen and plant managers, politicians, local media, mail pieces, and far-right political foundations. Terrified, workers voted against the UAW.
Plant management hosted mandatory “captive audience meetings” with groups of workers or one on one. An anti-union worker committee with likely ties to the company ran an aggressive “Vote No” campaign in the run up to the election, even distributing t-shirts for employee’s children to wear emblazoned with the words “Save My Daddy’s Job. Vote No.” The Koch brothers group Americans for Prosperity paid for twenty-five thousand anti-union mailers to be sent to area homes. Other employer associations teamed up to pay for regular billboard, television, and radio ad buys attacking the UAW and urging a “No” vote.
Details of a high-profile UAW corruption scandal and a long history of “partnership” with the Big Three automakers didn’t help either. The UAW vice president in charge of negotiations with Chrysler, who is now deceased, was alleged to have received well over a million dollars in gifts paid to his wife from the top leadership of Chrysler, while they were on opposing sides of the bargaining table.
The Union Before the Union
Though today’s economy is obviously different in important ways, lessons from the early days of the UAW and the CIO can serve to point us in the right direction.
When the industrial unions were first established and grew during the era of the Great Depression and World War II, employer resistance was just as, if not more, fierce than it is today. Class battles oftentimes involved appalling levels of violence and outright intimidation, in episodes that have now been handed down as battlefield lore amongst the labor movement: the Little Steel Strike, the Battle of the Overpass, and many more.
But even with such opposition, the most dynamic and militant unions were built in a different way, allowing them to overcome a solid wall of employer opposition. And for many of these unions, official NLRB union elections and formal recognition were not the first step in the process, but represented a step taken to register the de facto recognition that already existed inside the workplace, if they made use of NLRB sponsored elections at all. Even with success in an NLRB election, victory was hardly assured, and unions had to wage militant and oftentimes bruising strikes in order to finally break employer resistance.
Today, many unions’ new organizing strategy revolves around the collection of authorization cards, which when turned in to the NLRB, trigger the process of an eventual “secret ballot” election. With the overwhelming level of surveillance and access allowed to employers, there’s hardly anything secret about how workers will vote in a polarized union campaign environment. Many unions turn in their authorization cards at the exact minimum threshold needed to trigger the election process. According to members of the UAW’s organizing committee in the plant, the union turned in cards slightly above the minimum threshold (around 40 percent).
But it behooves unions to work until as close to a supermajority of the workforce signs cards before turning them in, through patient and steady activism inside and outside of the workplace. The sure expectation is that once the employer launches an all-out war against the union campaign, support is almost guaranteed to fall once the full onslaught begins to terrorize workers into voting against the union.
Members of the UAW’s organizing committee inside the plant admitted after the vote that their organization never extended throughout the different departments inside the plant, and that they never really built a representative body. In a serious misstep, around six hundred workers inside the shop were never approached by the organizing committee. Typically, most un-assessed workers vote against unionization because they’ve only ever heard from the company rather than their pro-union coworkers.
When the company ramped up the pressure in the weeks leading up to the election, many of the workers who signed cards cracked under the pressure and wound up voting against the union. One of the members of the pro-union organizing committee flipped, and publicly switched sides in the final days before the vote. According to interviews with organizing committee members, the union turned in some 1,500 cards but only garnered 1,037 votes in the final tally.
What’s more, the emphasis on collecting cards can oftentimes become the primary focus of the drive, rather than organizing at the workplace to shift the power dynamics on the shop floor. This was actually how the UAW and CIO was built in their early days: by leveraging worker’s power at the point of production in places like Flint, Michigan; South Bend, Indiana; or even Memphis, Tennessee and Winston Salem, North Carolina. This process often took years of patient organizing, and usually involved strike action.
This could mean the slow but steady growth of a pro-union organizing committee, which begins acting like a union long before cards are prioritized, and takes up workplace grievances around safety, unfair discipline or termination, opposing unilateral changes to working conditions at the worksite, or any other issue which motivates workers to overcome their fears of retaliation.
As labor historian Rosemary Feurer has demonstrated, the United Electrical workers (UE) used similar tactics when they launched an organizing drive at the independent electrical appliance companies around St. Louis, Missouri. They built a sustained community campaign to support their drive by maintaining alliances with faith and community groups, but they also recruited departmental shop stewards before union recognition was ever achieved, and recruited and trained a core group of union militants who could rely on each other to wage shopfloor battles. Eventually the core organizing committee won the trust of workers within the plants, and then proceeded to wage strikes and win elections registering what was already the reality of union representation inside the plants.
On the south side of Chicago during the Great Depression, the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) forged strong ties of trust among groups of coworkers inside the slaughterhouses by testing the power of their shop committees against foremen.
In their book on the packinghouse workers unionization and the role of black workers in the drives, Rick Halpern and Roger Horowitz describe what it looked like:
… The glue holding the diverse membership together was cooperation at the point of production. Common activity against company policies — ranging from pressing grievances to departmental job actions and plantwide walkouts — encouraged a growing confidence that blacks and whites would support each other in collective action.
They describe an early campaign in the Armour packinghouse to end the management practice of writing stars on the timecards of black workers, in order to target blacks for layoffs before other groups of workers in the plant.
After Charles Perry, a black worker and union activist on the hog kill, was laid off despite his high seniority, simultaneous stoppages on the hog, beef, and sheep kills brought the practice of tagging time cards to a halt and won widespread support among black workers.
Even paternalistic employers have practices in their workplaces that alienate or disgruntle employees, and Nissan was no exception. The company was cited for OSHA safety violations, and has implemented changes to the workforce’s pensions and health insurance. In 2015, a young black autoworker named Derrick Whiting collapsed on the floor of the Nissan plant and died, which members of the organizing committee attribute to the working conditions at the plant.
Over time, through successive workplace actions around their felt grievances, the union committee can serve to overcome coworkers’ fears and build loyalty and confidence among workplace activists. When unionists have a solid grasp of the workplace and stand a higher chance of success, only then should they think about collecting authorization cards and triggering a vote.
RJ Reynolds, the tobacco giant producing Camel cigarettes and other famous brands, was known as “the Ford of the South” in the 1930s and 1940s when the Tobacco Workers Organizing Committee began making contact with workers inside the massive plant complex in Winston Salem, NC. It was a large, paternalistic employer that dominated local politics, educational institutions, and civil society. RJ Reynolds also maintained a Jim Crow labor regime, dividing their black and white workforce and exploiting both. Slowly but surely, TWOC activists build up their forces inside the plant and trained their members on the ins-and-outs of union practice and history, welding them together into a hardcore unit of supporters who began to challenge the authority of the (at the time, all white) foremen at RJ Reynolds.
Robert Korstad, in his sweeping history of mid-century tobacco unionism at RJ Reynolds, described a humorous episode where a member of their organizing committee worked to creatively break down her coworkers’ fears:
They had to be careful to make their points without getting themselves fired or landing in jail. Defeat would only reinforce fear and pessimism. Growing frustrated with the slow pace of recruitment in her department, Theodosia Simpson devised a clever way to get her message across. ‘The organizers gave us cards and I would go back to my department and try to get these people to join,’ she remembered. ‘Oh, my God, the resistance we ran up against. We wore uniforms that buttoned down the front. One day I tore all the buttons off my dress, and buttoned it up with union buttons and went to work like that. The foreman didn’t know what to do about it. So he just asked me if I would go home and change uniforms please, and he paid me for the time I was gone … After that I was able to get a few people signed up, when they saw that I didn’t get fired for it. That’s why we had a nucleus in (plant) Number 65.
Eventually the TWOC would pull off quick strikes inside the plant, forcing the genteel and aristocratic RJ Reynolds company to negotiate with a duly elected shop committee of mostly black factory workers over a lengthy list of grievances, long before any election was held to certify TWOC as the bargaining agent.
These are just a few examples, but the whole history of the CIO shows us that workers everywhere, in the North and the South, have grievances at their workplaces, and can be empowered to act to change them. But workers will only act to overcome their fears when they know that their coworkers will have their back, and they sense that their collective activity has a reasonable chance of success. Even paternalistic Southern employers with the entirety of the local ruling class on their side can be beaten.