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UAW’s Chattanooga Victory: Score One For The North In Our Endless Civil War

Above photo: UAW members celebrate the announcement of unionization victory at VW’s Chattanooga auto plant, screen grab.

We still have two labor systems.

We need mass unionization to end our immense inequality, which has its roots in the South.

History—good history, if conditional history—was made last Friday in Chattanooga, as workers at Volkswagen’s factory there voted to join the United Auto Workers by an overwhelming margin of 2,628 to 985, a 73 percent to 27 percent landslide.

The vote was historic on any number of counts. It marks the UAW’s first successful unionization of a foreign-owned auto factory after a number of failed attempts; it marks the first unionization in many decades of a major group of workers in the non-union South; it may even mark the rebirth of a powerful union movement, something the nation has lacked over the past 40 years.

It also marks, alongside the provisional victory of the Starbucks baristas, a breakthrough in the type of occupation that’s been able to unionize. In recent years, there’s been a wave of unionizations among university teaching assistants, interns and residents, museum docents, and other workers who can’t readily be replaced should management fire them for their pro-union proclivities. But it’s been standard practice for management to fire assembly-line workers, retail clerks, drywall installers, and the myriad of other workers for whom replacements can indeed be found if and when they threaten to unionize. It’s illegal for employers to do that, but the penalties are so negligible (restoring those workers to their jobs after months or years of litigation, giving them their back pay, and posting a notice of this settlement somewhere in the workplace) that it’s long been standard practice in American business. The VW and Starbucks workers had that sword hanging over their heads, yet managed to prevail nonetheless. Should their example inspire the millions of workers who’d like to unionize but fear employers’ retaliation, that would mark a sea change in America’s political economy.

The historic status of the victory at Volkswagen, however, is still as yet conditional. To really mark a historic break with nearly 60 years of union decline—a decline that is at the root of the erosion of the New Deal’s egalitarian economics and, correspondingly, the rise of record levels of economic inequality—it can’t be a one-off. The UAW has to roll this on to other Southern foreign-transplant factories; the first test of its ability to do that will come the week of May 13, when workers at the Mercedes factory in Vance, Alabama, will also vote on whether to join the UAW.

But this victory—if it does become a harbinger of more—should be situated in an even larger historical context. It may well mean that the North now has a better chance to win the Civil War that began in 1861 but never really ended. That war, of course, counterposed two labor systems that were inextricably intertwined with two racial and social systems as well.

Everyone knows at least some of the racial narrative—how Reconstruction’s burst of racial egalitarianism was snuffed out in the mid-1870s, leaving the South with an economy of largely Black sharecropping, a society of segregation, and a system of Black suppression centered on lynching. Many of these systems were overthrown by decades of often heroic activism by Blacks and their allies. But not all of them.

The deep antipathy of the Confederacy to any form of worker power—which in the antebellum South meant Black power—has persisted to the current day. As soon as the Civil War ended, and before Reconstruction began, Southern state governments enacted their “Black Codes,” which bound former slaves to keep working, albeit this time for an actual pittance of a wage, on their former plantations, with no real option to leave. Sharecropping then kept them in place until they could pay off their debts, which, by the system’s design, seldom occurred.

By the late 19th century, some of the corporations centered in the industrial North had found their way south, chiefly in textiles, rails, mining, and steel. By the 1920s, Northern-based unions and indigenous Southern radicals were attempting to unionize the textile workers and meeting opposition (armed when “necessary”) that they couldn’t overcome. Then, with the great surge in industrial unionization that the UAW kicked off in Michigan with its successful 1937 strike at General Motors, the industrial unions’ organization—the CIO—made a major effort to unionize Southern factories in 1938. This coincided with President Roosevelt’s efforts to support liberal challengers to conservative Southern senators and representatives in that year’s Democratic primaries; but both FDR and the CIO’s attempts fell flat.

As World War II ended and workers sought raises to make up for what they hadn’t been paid during the wartime wage freeze, the nation saw the greatest strike wave in its history. Unions sought to ride that momentum by initiating a massive campaign—Operation Dixie, it was called—to unionize the industrial South. But Dixie’s political and economic power structure united to defeat nearly every unionization campaign. The fact that CIO unions like the UAW supported civil rights and often proposed to establish desegregated locals in the heart of Dixie made that power structure even more determined to wipe out every trace of unionism by every possible means. They not only told white workers that they’d have to work alongside Blacks, but that the unions were Northern intruders bent on undermining Southern “values.”

The following year, 1947, Southern House and Senate Democrats joined with Northern Republicans to enact, over Harry Truman’s veto, the Taft-Hartley Act, which made it far more difficult for unions to grow, in part by enabling states to pass laws making them “right to work,” which enabled workers represented by unions to avoid paying dues to them. This, in turn, made the economics of unionization very daunting for unions. Every Southern state quickly passed laws giving themselves this status, though over the years, as those states turned Republican and Northern Republicans became more “Southern”—that is, right-wing—some Northern states under Republican control went “right to work” as well. Even today, the five states with no minimum-wage law of their own are all Southern—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee—while Georgia’s minimum wage ($5.15) is actually lower than the federal minimum of $7.25 (to which all states are required to adhere, and may legally exceed, as many other states do).

Today, the South’s political and economic elite still mobilize to defend their labor system—much as they did in 1861, the 1920s, 1938, and 1946-1947. Now as then, that system is based on low-wage labor, sustained by denying workers the power to change that. The expansion of industrial America to the South has continued straight through our current era of financial capitalism’s promotion of offshoring. It’s been abetted by European and Asian corporations seeking low-wage labor whose products don’t have to travel far to reach American consumers. Southern states are now home not just to VW and Mercedes factories, but also factories of Nissan, Hyundai, Honda, and other Asian automakers—all of them non-union. For decades, Southern governors and mayors have been traveling across the Atlantic and Pacific, trying to lure such companies with the siren song of cheap and powerless labor.

The commanding heights of the American economy—Wall Street—was long aligned with the South in seeking to suppress worker wages and worker power. (During the actual Civil War, many New York financiers—early Wall Street—were heavily invested in the plantation economy, so much so that New York Mayor Fernando Wood suggested the city secede to support the Confederacy.) In 2011, I wrote about an as-yet-unreleased study from the Boston Consulting Group that noted how quickly factory workers’ wages were rising in China’s industrial belt and exulted that this increase would soon make some factory workers’ wages in the U.S. competitive again, provided our own labor system could sufficiently “flex” in the matter of worker pay. To demonstrate this pending renaissance of American manufacturing, it compared those Chinese wages with those in Mississippi. When I called the author of the study and suggested that most Americans wouldn’t consider sinking to the living standards of Mississippi to be a renaissance, he conceded the point. When the study was eventually released, its reference to Mississippi had been eliminated. Instead, it cited the industrial wage standards in South Carolina.

Not surprisingly, South Carolina wage standards were good enough for some foreign corporations. Since Airbus is partly owned by the German government and thus has to partly follow the German law that requires workers’ representatives on corporate boards, I was told, during a discussion about a decade ago with the chief of staff of a German union official on Airbus’s board, that the company was then carefully weighing the respective pluses and minuses of locating its next factory in either the Chinese South or the American South.

By trying to match the labor standards of China, of course, the Southern power structure was doing no favor to its own workers, and bringing down the wage and benefit levels of workers in the North. As I noted in a Prospect article nine years ago, “Between 1980 and 2013, The Wall Street Journal has reported, the number of auto industry jobs in the Midwest fell by 33 percent, while those in the South increased by 52 percent.” Not surprisingly, when manufacturing went south, so did the wages of manufacturing workers. In 2021, the Journal reported that a factory job that paid 83 percent more than a hotel or restaurant job in 2010 paid just 56 percent more in 2020. It added that the pay advantage of manufacturing over retail had slumped from 40 percent to 27 percent. This was not because wages in hotels, restaurants, and stores were rising.

In the battle over Chattanooga’s VW factory, the Southern power structure not only united to oppose the horror of worker power but went to the same playbook of alarmist misinformation that has underpinned its messaging for well over a hundred years. As Jamelle Bouie has noted in The New York Times, the governors (all Republican) of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas jointly published a letter decrying what they termed the “special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values we live by.” Like their predecessor governors of 1946 and 1938—hell, like Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun—they portrayed this battle as originating with Northern outsiders seeking to undermine their “values.” In particular, their last-ditch defense of those values were ads that said by voting to unionize, workers were affiliating themselves with an organization that had endorsed the hated Joe Biden.

This time, though, it didn’t work. As Mike Elk noted in a report from Chattanooga that we ran on Friday, the workers at the VW plant are a younger and more racially diverse group than those who voted down previous attempts to go union. The teaching assistants, baristas, and now autoworkers who’ve voted to go union in the past couple of years come disproportionately from, by the evidence of multiple polls, the most pro-union generation that this country may have ever seen. Their awareness of this nation’s stratospheric levels of inequality and the strapped financial conditions that they themselves live under have primed them to seek better conditions. And if the union option didn’t appear all that attractive to them before, or if unions were so far off their radar screens that they didn’t even consider it, the campaigns that the new-model UAW has waged under President Shawn Fain have not only brought unions to their attention, but made the union option palpably attractive. The UAW’s recent strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis ended in record contracts for its members, and though all the Southern non-union plants immediately gave raises to their own workers to stave off a sudden (and utterly rational) burst of pro-union sentiment, the UAW’s contracts were still far superior to what the Southern factories were offering, and so well publicized that the Southern workers knew it.

Significant increases in union membership don’t happen incrementally; they come in waves. It was the UAW’s successful sit-down strike of 1937 in key GM factories that spawned the greatest such wave, growing the unionized share of the national workforce from about 10 percent in the mid-1930s to about 34 percent in the mid-1940s. Can the UAW do it again? Can the North finally win our near-eternal civil war?

We shall see.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.

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