United Auto Workers Vote at the Chattanooga Volkswagen Plant in Tennessee, United States.
Preliminary References :
This vote against unionisation amongst the car workers in Tennessee, in my opinion, expresses the contradictory forces which workers are now facing globally. The result of the vote itself bears a contradictory character.
As the structural crisis of capital deepens, for millions of workers across the globe, the question for many are very simple : Do I have a job or don’t I? Will I be able to pay the rent, the mortgage, feed and clothe my family, etc? Will I have the money to survive and live? The holiday abroad once a year? Do I have a better chance of keeping my job if I accept the terms offered by capital or if I reject them? If capital states that being in a trade union will lessen the chances of keeping your job and keeping your workplace open, do I accept it? Or do I risk unionisation, struggle, militancy and the possibility that the threats issued by capital will be carried out? Do I do a “Grangemouth” or do I do the opposite and fight?
The Grangemouth plant is only a brief westerly journey by car up the road from the battlefield at Dunbar. Not since Cromwell and his republican army utterly crushed Leslie’s Covenanters at Dunbar in 1650 has there been such a rout in bonnie Scotland. The UNITE bureaucracy totally caved in and conceded everything to capital.
‘Tactical retreat’ or the tendency and future of trade unionism in the epoch of capital’s deepening structural crisis? Where is trade unionism going?
Those workers that have jobs need to and want to hang on to them. You lose your job and the whole structure of your life starts to disintegrate. The normal life of the worker becomes full of stress and conflict as the money (‘liquidity’) which provided for this normality starts to dry up.
They look down the road into the next neighbourhood and they see many in structural unemployment and all the social manifestations and problems of decay associated with that. And then they look at their homes and families and think “a job at any cost”. They look at their kids – think about their schooling, well-being and future – and do not automatically start skipping to slogans of “class solidarity” or the “workers united will never be defeated”, etc.
They sense the gravity of the situation which they are facing, it provokes anxiety and stress, worry and they seek, initially, salvation ‘within’, so to speak. They witness their fellow workers in the same predicament and try to do what they can within the limits of this ‘solidarity’ but they always turn back to their homes and families for that sense of belonging and security.
This is what many people are working for. This is what they get out of bed at 6 am every morning for. This is the raison d’etre of their sweat and toil in a car plant for 50 hours a week. They don’t do it for Karl Marx or for a pensioned trade union official. In a certain sense, they do not do it for capital. Work is for life and is not an unalienable and intrinsically meaningful and enjoyable part of it under capitalism. ‘Life’ begins where work ends : at home, at table, in the pub or bar, on holiday, with family, at weekends, in bed with partner, etc.
This is man alienated from his own essential human power (labour) and its product; from his fellow men in production and from himself as a producer. This is man creating an alien hostile power, of his own making yet confronting and dominating him, which takes the form of capital, which turns the worker into ‘an appendage of the machine’, which dehumanises him and enslaves him. And subjects him to all the power of mind-warping ideological forces and constraints which this alien power can muster and throw at him.
The social revolution to come will be the most bitter and tenacious of struggles. It is not simply a transition from the rule of capital to its negation. It is a transition from a long, enduring period (millenia) of a whole series of epochs of the different forms of rule of private property to the complete transcendence of private property in communism. It will involve the historicisation of a whole gamut of transhistorical forms which have carried over from one era of private property into the succeeding ones. It will be more revolutionary – and more of an upheaval – than the very first human revolution that brought human culture itself into being out of its pre-human, pre-conditions. To carry this revolution through, it will require men and women of a qualitatively higher order than those who have carried through previous revolutions.
In a deep crisis, people only start to move away from the ‘line of least resistance’ when there is no other alternative. The American bourgeoisie of the 18th century did everything it possibly could to accommodate itself to the British colonial authority. “Do not tread on me”. Only when conditions had irredeemably passed beyond a certain stage, did it become radicalised and was it compelled to move forward to war against that power.
Initially, people turn inwards to their own resources, to friends and family. Hackneyed as it is, they think about ‘Number 1’ first. Only when conditions deteriorate to such a degree that this is no longer possible, do they step out onto the road of mass struggle, war and revolution. They start to organise and mobilise as a class for struggle against the capital order and its state power. The American bourgeoisie, in its anti-colonial struggle, organised as a class. They left the question of black slavery unaddressed for another century. And only addressed it when it suited the needs of the growing capitalist system as a whole in opposition to the interests of landed property as expressed by the political and military mobilisation of the southern states of the Confederacy. Slavery itself had become a fetter on the development of capital and had to be replaced with wage-labour.
In the final three centuries of the Roman Empire, the institution of slavery had also become unsustainable. The crisis of the third century was a direct expression of this and was only resolved with the establishment and institutionalisation of the colonate (sharecropping bonded labourers instead of chattel slaves) under the reforms of the emperor Diocletian. The direct labour of the chattel became replaced with the labour of the sharecropping, bonded colonus who became established as a forerunner of the feudal serf of the middle ages.
Under conditions of crisis, where capital is still currently ‘holding all the aces’, global capital stands in relation to the trade union bureaucracy (both its national and international forms) as the organ grinder does to the monkey. The whole structure and organisation of official trade unionism is now completely integrated into the capitalist order. The financial portfolios and pension funds of trade unions are managed as capital on the world market so that any increments accruing to these funds are as likely to have their origins in the uncompensated labour of sweatshops in Asia or Latin America as they do in the parasitism of money capital in the US, Japan or Europe.
The privileges of the trade union official now rests on two footings : the relation to the fee-paying membership and the relation to the global circulation of money capital. United Auto Workers President, Bob King said….
“Our philosophy is, we want to work in partnership with companies to succeed. Nobody has more at stake in the long-term success of the company than the workers on the shop floor, both blue collar and white collar. With every company that we work with, we’re concerned about competitiveness.”
Similar or worse statements in complete subservience to capital can be found in the reference links at the head of this article.
This statement is like declaring your intention to commit a crime before you actually commit it. With this sort of union leadership, who needs capitalist management? Simply outsource it to the UAW executive. With statements like this, who could doubt the possibility of dirty deals between the UAW and VW? Why have Nosferatu in charge of the blood donation service when you can have his affable assistant Igor at a fraction of the cost? Am I being harsh here? If you study the history of this dispute, you will see that I am not.
Many workers now see trade unions in their currently bureaucratised forms as part of the whole problem which they are now facing. They are certainly not part of the solution. They see them as another ‘corporation’ who want to take a slice of their cake and are offering them nothing in exchange for it except bluster, obfuscation, excuses, betrayal and dirty deals with capital in which everyone is happy except the worker. They do not think of the trade unions as ‘their’ unions but as alien bodies (which, like capital, they themselves have created) which belong to men in suits sitting in comfortable chairs in pleasantly furnished offices. The offices of the AFL-CIO in Washington wouldn’t look out of place with a corporation tag stuck on its frontage. They see this bureaucracy as hostile to their interests. In other words, they feel alienated from the very organisations which should be there to represent and articulate their class interests in the struggle against capital. The dual basis of the existence of the bureaucracy now turns them into adjuncts and proxies of capital. ‘Business Unionism’ is the inevitable corollary of these relations.
If the whole structure of your life – in conditions of crisis when losing your job means a lifetime of unemployment – depends on whether or not you keep your job, you will form an alliance with whosoever you think is the best bet for guaranteeing you that job. A case of better the devil you know. You would make a Faustian deal with the Devil himself if you thought that it would save your job and therefore your whole life, family, home, children ,etc. But you would only make such a deal if you thought that the class organisations (trade unions) which had traditionally represented your interests had utterly failed and had even abandoned you and gone over to the side and ways of the enemy. This is what has happened at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The vote of the car workers in Tennessee may appear to be a vote against trade unionism and for capital. It is not. It is a vote against Business Unionism. It is a vote against this form of unionism, its corruption, its integration into the whole capitalist order, its constant refusal to mobilise the class in struggle. It is not a vote for the organ grinder but rather a vote against his monkey. The workers at the VW plant in Tennessee voted the way they did not because they have any confidence in capital to deliver full and lasting employment but because they have lost confidence in the trade union structures to do so. And because in time of crisis when trade unionism is sinking fast and totally enthralled to capital itself, it sees the false promises which capital offers as the only straws which are worth grasping. A vote of dissatisfaction with official trade unionism. Not a vote of satisfaction with capital.
Car workers – all over the world – are not so easily swayed by right wing propaganda. A majority vote against unionisation is not necessarily a vote against trade unionism per se or for capital. But rather an expression of dissatisfaction of workers with trade unions in their current form. Millions who do not turn out to vote in national elections are not necessarily voting for their own disenfranchisement. Rather their abstention is often an unconscious political expression (taking the form of cynicism sometimes) of their dissatisfaction with the whole current system of capitalist governance. They simply cannot ‘see the point’ of voting because ‘it will change nothing’. Actually, this worries the ideologues of capital because contained implicitly within this ‘no vote’ disaffection is the potential for something greater, something which is hostile to the whole system of their governance and state power. Cynicism – taken to extremes – can turn into or flip over into action.
Finally, I noticed something in an American journal : (http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16300/after_uaw_defeat_at_volkswagen_in_tennessee_theories_abound) covering the Chattanooga VW dispute which I quote below in full..
“Also, pro-union community activists, who spoke with ‘In These Times’ on condition of anonymity out of fear of hurting their relationships with the UAW, spoke about difficulties in getting the UAW to help them engage the broader Chattanooga community. Many activists I spoke with during my two trips to Chattanooga said that when they saw the UAW being continually blasted on local talk radio, newspapers and billboards, they wanted to get involved to help build community support.”
“However, they say that the UAW was lukewarm in partnering with them. Indeed, when I attended a forum in December organized by Chattanooga for Workers, a community group designed to build local support for the organizing drive, more than 150 community activists attended—many from different area unions—but I encountered only three UAW members. Community activists said they had a hard time finding ways to coordinate solidarity efforts with the UAW, whose campaign they saw as insular rather than community-based.”
“There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you,” said one Chattanooga community organizer, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.”
In other words, rather than reaching out to the broad layers of the proletariat in Tennessee, the UAW bureaucracy opted to maintain the car workers in isolation from this broad potential support of their brothers and sisters.
We cannot go on with the trade unions as they stand in their current structural and organisational form. They are useless. Unfit for purpose. Historically outmoded. We need to move forward to a fundamentally new type of unionism which is based in the whole class and not simply in the workplace. And such a new type of unionism will indeed be more capable of representing the class interests of workers in and outside the workplace. Moreover, the old bureaucratised structures are outmoded and in the pockets of capital. We cannot go forward with these. They must go as well. We need to make the ‘fatcats’ of trade unionism a thing of the past. A living wage for every trade union leader but not an inflated one.