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Autoworkers Deserve Better Than the UAW

The closing of the Lordstown plant and the recent Chattanooga defeat are the latest crushing losses for US autoworkers. What's worse, the UAW has proven completely incapable of fighting back.

Dave Green, president of UAW Local 1112, talks to the media outside the GM Lordstown plant on March 6, 2019 in Lordstown, Ohio. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

General Motor’s Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant was shuttered indefinitely this past March after more than fifty years making vehicles. An AP photo captured the scene as the last car — a gleaming white Chevy Cruze draped in the American flag — rolled down the assembly line.

Autoworkers looked on with a mixture of sadness and resignation. One thousand six hundred Lordstown workers lost their jobs in the closing as part of GM’s latest restructuring plan in which at least fourteen thousand blue- and white-collar jobs will be cut and four additional plants will be closed.

GM claims it needs to close plants to raise money for electric and autonomous vehicle development — a laughable claim considering the company’s Board of Directors has authorized $14 billion for share buybacks.

Regardless of the real reasons for the closure, the somber farewell speaks volumes about the grim status quo for autoworkers today. It also calls to mind a different time.

For boomers and labor history nerds Lordstown evokes an angsty, rebellious time and place — an “industrial Woodstock” where pissed-off young men in bell-bottoms and shaggy hair defied both their company and their union.

In the early 1970s General Motors, feeling the pinch of competition from Europe and Japan, instituted a new production system in its more modern plants (including Lordstown) to cut costs and increase productivity. It trimmed the number of assembly workers while speeding up production from sixty cars per hour to an unprecedented one hundred Vegas per hour.

Lordstown autoworkers, many of whom had fought in Vietnam and were sympathetic to the broader social movement occurring around the country, were furious at the new system and rebelled. They filed thousands of grievances, stayed home, worked to rule, and let unfinished cars roll by on the line.

Members of Local 1112 weren’t just unhappy about the inhuman pace of the line or GM’s contemptible disciplinary policy, however. They were frustrated with their lives — with the realization that being a cog in a machine was all there was for working men like them. For many, the relatively decent pay and benefits of an auto job simply wasn’t a fair exchange for spending life trapped in a factory destined to perform the same grueling tasks over and over until retirement or death.

In 1972 Lordstown workers went on strike. As the local’s treasurer J. D. Smith said of the rank-and-filers at the time: “They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They’re not afraid of management. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.”

The Lordstown workers’ “blue-collar blues” received the most attention from press and media outlets, but they weren’t alone. The early seventies saw an upsurge of labor organizing and wildcat strikes.

At other auto plants black workers organized revolutionary union movements (RUMs), coming together in Detroit to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1969 to fight racist unions and bosses.

Mineworkers rebelled against their undemocratic and murderous leadership; California farmworkers organized a grape boycott under César Chávez to improve working conditions; clerical workers fought for their own unions even when their union brothers didn’t support them.

Like the autoworkers who walked out at Lordstown, most of these rank-and-file rumblings weren’t about getting a bigger paycheck. Workers wanted respect and dignity. They wanted a voice in their unions and a safe, healthy place to work.

Observers at the time thought the uprisings signaled the beginning of a something new — a departure from the ossified union bureaucracies, recalcitrant companies, and pluralist assumptions of policymakers that had come to characterize labor relations by the late 1950s.

In hindsight it’s clear that uprisings like Lordstown were the end, not the beginning.

They were the last real attempt to transform the declining union movement into a vehicle of working-class empowerment — the last attempt to chart a course for industrial democracy, a goal that had been shunted aside by the end of World War II.

In the wake of the second oil shock, the neoliberal counterrevolution, and industry-wide concessions, those autoworkers who had managed to hold on to their jobs stopped demanding something better. Existential dread took a back seat to unemployment.

The autoworkers’ union meanwhile, entered a four-decade holding pattern, using its remaining structural bargaining power to hold on to its legacy gains for as long as possible. Instead of returning to its radical roots in the face of new challenges, the UAW doubled down on business unionism.

No doubt these decades were punctuated by moments of rank-and-file militancy, some of it — like the Delphi workers’ bankruptcy fightback — incredibly brave. But the steady drip of concessions, attrition, and buyouts slowly drained the once powerful union’s life force.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the UAW’s recent loss in Chattanooga where workers voted 833 to 776 against joining the union. The loss follows a string of defeats in the US South including a previous Chattanooga campaign in 2014 and yet another trouncing at Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi plant the summer of 2017.

These losses are often chalked up to globalization and technology. But while many, many auto jobs have been moved to cheaper locales outside the United States or destroyed by automation, the story is not so simple.

The United States is the second largest producer of motor vehicles in the world and makes significantly more cars and trucks now than it did in 1970. The churn of globalization has not only sent jobs out of the country, it has also brought in vast new brick-and-mortar investment from foreign assemblers and component manufacturers.

Yet, UAW organizing successes have been few and far between, and in recent years have been increasingly likely to occur in sectors outside of auto. The reasons why aren’t hard to find.

As Chris Brooks has shown through his in-depth reporting from auto plants in the US South, the UAW is stuck in the seventies.

Brooks talked with dozens of pro-union autoworkers in Tennessee who painted a clear picture of the union’s recent defeat: it failed to “organize a high-participation, in-plant campaign capable of withstanding a strong boss fight.”

Instead of building solidarity through community outreach, or organizing a petition drive around the plant’s dire health and safety issues, the UAW spent thousands on pro-union television commercials and ads played at local gas station pumps.

The UAW’s failure speaks to a clear divide in the labor movement today. The campaigns that are winning are the ones grounded in empowering rank-and-file workers and their communities.

The teachers’ revolts of the past few years bring this contrast into sharp relief. Despite being underpaid and overworked, teachers around the country have formed dynamic campaigns, standing up to both their unions and their elected officials.

Indeed, the teachers’ campaigns, starting with the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, have been so powerful they have created an expanded notion of what it means to be a teacher.

Teachers from West Virginia to Los Angeles have positioned themselves not simply as workers who deserve a raise and decent benefits, but as fighters — for their students, their community, and for the survival of public education in America.

In organizing their campaigns teachers made sure poor students still got meals, that non-English speaking families could be active participants. Their outreach was encompassing, drawing in parents and community members, ensuring issues such as the school to prison pipeline, over-testing, immigrant fears, and classroom size were front and center.

This expansion of teachers’ working-class identity has been incredibly empowering, giving their campaigns an energy that is impossible for elites to dismiss or ignore.

It’s also what’s missing from business union drives like those organized by the UAW — it’s why autoworkers aren’t willing to risk their livelihood on a vote for the organization.

The closing of the Lordstown plant and the recent Chattanooga defeat are painful and demoralizing, not least because autoworkers today are in desperate need of a raise and a dignified, safe place to work.

But the UAW doesn’t seem to have the answer. It’s time to build something new.