Auto Workers still frustrated in organizing the South
Despite a long, hard-fought battle, these pro-union workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi lost the union election because of a campaign of harassment and intimidation by the company. |

DETROIT—Even Dennis Williams admits there’s a problem.

In his address and report to his union, the retiring president of the Auto Workers touched upon his union’s – and labor’s – greatest frustration: Organizing the South.

From Virginia sweeping through Texas and Oklahoma, the South is the nation’s fastest-growing and least-unionized region. And they’re all so-called “right to work” states, too.

For example, South Carolina is dead last in union density. Its politicians’ hatred of workers and unions is set in stone. Just over 2.6 percent of its workers are union members. Wins are so rare that a small Machinists victory at a Boeing plant gets noticed.

South Carolina is not alone. In recent years, the UAW came up short in organizing an entire Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., though it recently won a small unit of skilled tradespeople there. As a result, except for Alabama (7.4 percent) and the two Carolinas, union density in the Old Confederacy, plus Oklahoma, generally ranges around 5 percent. North Carolina is next-to-last, at 3.4 percent

Other unions have occasionally succeeded in the South. In a brief conversation after his speech to UAW, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed out 1,000 nurses organized in Texas and 1,200 utility workers organized in Atlanta. He did not specify which union organized either group.

Still, the UAW has conducted the most high-profile organizing drives in the South. And both its Volkswagen campaign and its drive at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. – including support from the NAACP, actor Danny Glover and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt. – failed.

Both lost for similar reasons: Racial divide-and-conquer tactics by local company bosses, threats from top politicians that plants would lose state subsidies if workers went union, a huge right-wing anti-union media blitz, especially in Chattanooga and overall Southern unfamiliarity with unions. And, though Williams did not say so, skepticism of outsiders who came in to campaign.

Williams and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed out gains from the two big drives anyway.

After UAW lost the overall Volkswagen vote, it won in the skilled trades unit, and its Local 42 is helping other, unorganized, VW workers defend themselves. “VW has challenged our skilled trades unit over and over and over” before the National Labor Relations Board and so far, failed, Williams said. And Nissan, he claimed, was a win of sorts “because we were successful in several ways, such as giving those workers a raise.”

And in Mississippi, “You went down in Canton to a campaign of illegal and immoral intimidation. But you let people know the rich and powerful don’t hold all the cards,” Trumka told convention delegates. “But we’ll be back again and again and again and again and again until we bring unionism and workers who need it and who are going to get it.”

All that still leaves UAW’s leaders – new President Gary Jones and company – at a loss. Rank-and-file members interviewed at the convention in Detroit have some ideas, though, on organizing the South.

One truck plant worker from Whitfield, Va., on the state’s North Carolina border, who declined to give his name, said Southerners will eventually come around on their own, “when they get tired” of low wages and lousy working conditions. “But some laws will have to change, too,” he pointed out.

Joe Grisham and Shawn Hunt, of Local 3000, work in the largest U.S. plant of German-owned Kirchhoff Auto Parts, making instrument panels for everything from cars – the Cadillac Silverado – to military jets (the F-15). Their 700-person plant in Michigan is the only unionized Kirchhoff plant in the U.S. But Kirchhoff has four other U.S. plants, including in Garland, Texas, and Manchester, Tenn.

“We all have to step up to the plate more, and every local must have an organizing drive going in a non-union company,” Grisham said. “We also have to convince our own new people who come in” of the benefits of joining unions. “When you don’t, it causes division. And we can’t depend on” the national union’s Organizing Department to do the job, he added.

“If I was organizing Garland, I’d want to compare our benefits with those in non-union plants,” added Hunt. “It’s not just wages and benefits, but it’s paid time off. And you let them know that because you’re union, you have a say in your working conditions.” Noted Grisham: “I tell new people I pay a buck-forty-five a day in union dues so I can have a say in my job.”

As union members, “You have the right to say to the boss ‘You’re mismanaging the plant. Don’t mismanage.’” After all, Grisham pointed out, workers have an even greater stake in the firm’s success.

In an informal conversation, Alabama native Jim McDonald – you could hear it in his voice – who also spent 18 years in Michigan and was an UAW organizer in both regions, offered more advice. He drew on stories from his colleagues and his own experience organizing Freightliner in Mount Holly, N.C.

One is that you can’t lie, even if the company and its hired guns do so. Otherwise, McDonald, who is now retired, said, your credibility as an organizer is gone. Tell prospective supporters one wrong thing, he stated, and it will race around the plant.

Conversely, if you have a worker on the fence, devote the time, hours if necessary, to answering questions and fielding doubts, honestly. That devotion turns the undecided worker into a supporter who can spread the union word within a factory, McDonald explained.

And McDonald made one final humorous point which brings home the need to accommodate to local culture. An organizer in the South must not only speak local unionists’ language, he said, but must speak it in the local language, or, rather, dialect.

His example: In one organizing drive, a Northerner and a Southerner learned Southern workers could use some “flahrs.” The Northerner showed up the next day with fliers. They went untaken and unread. The Southerner showed up with carnations. They were quickly snapped up.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.