There’s been much attention over the reported loss of a UAW union election at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi on Friday, August 4th. Many see the organizing effort as part of a larger question of whether the US labor movement can organize in the historically unorganized and union-hostile South. New York City IWW organizer Marianne Garneau writes this brief commentary offering her assessment.
By Marianne Garneau
The defeat of a UAW election bid at a Nissan plant in Mississippi got a tremendous amount of attention this week, particularly from the left. People seemed especially disheartened by the defeat, and almost at a loss for why things turned out so badly for the union. Sure enough, the internet produced all kinds of hot, world-historic takes explaining the outcome, a lot of them looking for some kind of exceptional circumstances here. Most zeroed in on the Southern context.
Granted, the union defeat was unfortunate. And it is possible it could have gone another way – we shouldn’t think it was some inevitable outcome (there is way too much fatalism on the left these days). But the reasons why the UAW failed are perfectly legible, and none of them are novel. Everything about the loss – the union’s strategy, the company’s union-busting, the social and political context – was textbook.
Why the UAW Vote at Nissan Failed
1. The company union-busted like crazy. And yes, union-busting includes things like playing on racial divisions and threatening people’s jobs (these are the sticks), and paying workers high salaries (the carrots). The bosses apparently built a tent outside the plant and met with every single worker on shift, including the ones who weren’t even eligible to vote in the election. That’s brilliant union-busting, but it’s to be expected. That’s why unions have a counterstrategy to that, called “inoculation,” where workers are prepared ahead of time for the boss’ rhetoric, and their sticks and carrots.
2. The union took a weak-ass, conservative, timid stance of mostly trying to keep the stuff the company was already giving workers and playing nice/reasonable with management. UAW has repeatedly said that it wants to work with companies to help their bottom line healthy, etc. That borrows directly from the boss’s logic that they are gifting workers a job and a wage, as opposed to workers generating all the profits the owners get to pocket.
3. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) played its usual role of “wot, us?” It slowly churned through its processes of listening to complaints from either side. I don’t even remember what the outcome was of its rulings (or if it ever got to them). But that’s how little that matters to the actual, bloody fight “on the shop floor.”
4. By the way, none of this has anything to do with “the south.” What is supposed to be unique here? The fact that other jobs in the area pay terribly? The fact that workers are divided along racial lines? The fact that union density is low? Those are exactly the same conditions that beleaguer workers, and organizing efforts, elsewhere.
5. And yeah, unfortunately, these workers, who presumably voted this way out of fear, and wanting to keep their jobs, will die on their knees as their wages get cut, their jobs get automated or outsourced, or they get replaced by lower-wage temps. You can’t “play nice” or compromise your way to better wages or conditions. Playing nice with the boss means they retain the power to control your wages and your working conditions. The only alternative is to amass real power on the shop floor – real power to disrupt the flow of profits – and control how the boss treats you. You can’t escape the forces of capitalism inside of one plant, but you can fight like hell over every single site where your labor is exploited for the boss’s gain.
You can’t avoid the class war; workers need to make it clear to the bosses that they can’t either.
Marianne Garneau is active with the New York City IWW and an organizer with the Ellen’s Stardust Diner campaign.
If you enjoyed this article we also recommend “The Next 100 Day: May Day and Worker Resistance Under Trump” by the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Labor Committee and “An Early Death for the LA Teacher’s Struggle?” by Zacundo.