How the UAW Could Change the South

Photograph Source: MN AFL-CIO – CC BY 2.0

The UAW is on a roll. After winning stupendous contracts at the Big Three automakers this past year, the union then organized Volkswagen in Tennessee April 20. What’s eye-popping about this is that the UAW succeeded not only in the South, but also with a foreign car manufacturer – a twofer. Now as the union zooms in on a May vote by 5000 workers at Mercedes in Alabama, the larger implications of Shawn Fain’s still relatively new union presidency have become clear, namely, a change in workers’ culture in the anti-union, right-to-work South; because if the UAW racks up more wins in the region, that will alter the local political ecosystem. Politicos will find themselves in an environment that includes a growing union presence, something they have sought to extirpate for generations.

The first, most obvious improvement wrought by UAW wins will be a boost in the standard of living for working people. A rising tide lifts all boats, they say, and as auto factories pay more and offer better job security, other employers will follow suit or be left in the dust by a worker stampede to the auto industry. True, that stampede may take time to gather force, but it will happen if other employers don’t get in line. This, of course, will threaten the Southern status quo: the people with money, donors and plutocrats who control governors and statehouses will resist, but in the long run it’s simpler to raise wages than to try to hold back the sea. So if the UAW truly organizes its industry throughout the South, it will better the lives of lots of non-autoworkers.

Another change is that a UAW presence will entice people eager to appeal to union members into the political fray. Some will win. And their platforms will be more generous to ordinary people on bread-and-butter economic issues than they would be without an altered South. Such politicians will start legislating toward benefitting working people. Their popularity will encourage others. While this process may take years, it still remains a very likely result of masses of unionized voters and ever more people in those voters’ ambit.

The organizing drive at Mercedes Benz in Alabama got a huge boost from the UAW’s recent other successes. According to The Militant March 25, “Workers at the plant announced February 27 that they had gathered UAW cards from more than half the workers…The company is holding mandatory meetings to try to convince the workers to vote no.” One employee, Jim Spitzley, recounts that “when the 2008 recession hit…they laid off 1500 workers. Despite company promises, they never came back. Instead, more and more workers were hired as temps, and it took up to eight years for them to be hired as regular employees. We used to call them ‘permatemps.’ They’re at 15 percent to 20 percent of the workforce now. The company also instituted a two-tier setup in 2010 where new hires got lower pay and fewer benefits.”

The Militant reports that after last fall’s UAW strikes, Mercedes ditched the two tiers and upped the bonuses and, marginally, wages. These moves, however, may not suffice to counter the union’s bigger strategy of organizing auto plants in the South. “The UAW has pledged to spend US $40 million to expand its ranks to include more auto and electric battery workers,” wrote Bob Bussel in CounterPunch April 23. That money is for “many employed in the South, where the industry is quickly gaining ground.”

You can bet the union’s quickly gaining ground, too. Even though Volkswagen hiked wages 11 percent, that didn’t defeat the UAW. On April 19, according to Labor Notes, “the vote was 2628 in favor of forming a union to 985 against,” out of 4326 employees eligible to vote. That’s a massive union win. “Previous efforts at this plant in 2014 and 2019 had gone down to narrow defeats.” Workers “brushed off threats that a union would make the plant less competitive and lead it to close. After all, VW invested $800 million here in 2019 to produce the I.D. Electric SUV.” One organizing committee member predicted unionization at Mercedes “and they will create the momentum for Hyundai and Toyota.” VW workers also ignored a warning from Tennessee GOP governor Bill Lee not to “risk their future” by voting to unionize and not to lose “the freedom to decide it themselves and hand that over to a negotiator on their behalf.”

The first building blocks in the UAW’s Volkswagen success were its multiple wins with the Big Three last year. On November 29, the union announced its plan to organize the auto industry entirely, which it couldn’t have begun implementing without its landmark 2023 contract successes. First it had wrapped up negotiations with Ford, then on October 28 with Stellantis, where it had struck for 44 days. “We’ve achieved what just weeks ago we were told was impossible,” UAW’s phenomenally resourceful leader Fain said about its wins: a 25 percent raise over four and a half years, an 11 percent pay boost at ratification, a 150 percent pay hike for temps, a 37 percent jump in the top wage, a 68 percent increase in starting pay, plus saving jobs at the Belvedere, Illinois plant previously slated for closure. And next came the deal with G.M., also excellent for the workers.

These contracts with the Big Three all expire on May Day, 2028, when Fain has called for a general strike. “We have to pay for our sins of the past,” Fain said in January. “Back in 1980 when Reagan at the time fired patco workers, everybody in this country should have stood up and walked the hell out. We missed the opportunity then, but we’re not going to miss it in 2028. That’s the plan. We want a general strike. We want everybody walking out just like they do in other countries.” That means other unions in other industries. All unionized workers and maybe the non-union ones too. Everybody.

By then hopefully the UAW will have snagged contracts across the American South. Alabama governor Kay Ivey already sounded the rightwing alarm, claiming unions would attack “the Alabama model for economic success.” That’s a model that depends on low wages and zip, zilch, nada control for workers when it comes to dealing with the boss. And it’s a model auto-workers are correct to challenge. “If the Alabama workers vote yes, workers in South Carolina might stand up next at Mercedes in Charleston, Volvo in Ridgeville and BMW in Greer,” reported Labor Notes April 30. Not surprisingly, the suggestions that Fain get deeper into politics or even run for U.S. president at some future date have already appeared on the internet. Of course, for now, he’s needed exactly where he is, in the union movement. But based on his achievements so far, his would already be a first-rate candidacy for any government office; and if he organizes the auto industry in the South, it would become an electrifying one.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.