#846 – Dick Bernard: Why "I Breathe Union". The invisible but real long-term consequences for America symbolized by the VW vote.

After workers at the Chattanooga TN VW plant barely voted down the United Auto Workers a few days, I sent a message to my own mailing list. Part of that Feb. 17 message was this: “The vote doesn’t surprise me at all”. (The remainder of that message is at the end of this post; a link to a longer discussion of this issue can be found here.)
Most of my career I was Union staff: my full-time job was representing workers (in my case, public school teachers). One would be hard-pressed to find anyone more certain of the value to society of organized Labor Unions than myself. I do “breathe union”*.
Nonetheless, in my opinion, the workers in that Chattanooga plant, as a collection of individuals, made a very bad group decision. It was their individual decision: more “no” than “yes”. They need to own it and build from it. It can, some day, be reversed. A majority of the workers chose to lose for reasons known to each one of them, personally, including those who chose not to vote at all.
They represent the inherent weakness of our reverence for individualism in our society: while we insist on marching to our own individual drummers, we are ever more separated into balkanized special interests, including our own.
It would be one thing if all individuals were created equal, but this is not so in our society, where some individuals are in a position to do much more damage than others. The greater the gap between the haves and those who have less, the greater the problem, for everyone, including the rich. As a few rocket up in wealth and perceived “power”; the rest spiral down.
Workers in particular need to relearn the value of sticking together for the greater good. It will again be a long, hard, but essential process.
(There is an interesting distinction between the words “choice” and “decide”: Decide has the same root as suicide, etc. Choice gives other options…. Someone who commits a homicide (a decision) has at least a short term feeling of satisfaction, of having done the right thing (in his or her mind). But it is a decision with consequences.)
There is a reason the Power Establishment wants to keep unions away from the bargaining table. A good union, with members who understand and appreciate the principles of working together, tends to increase wages and benefits which, in the long term, benefit everyone directly. Unions made the middle class, which in turn made the prosperity we have enjoyed in this country.
By far the biggest losers long term when organized labor is defeated is everyone of us, including the Senator Corker’s and their ilk who try to cover their collective rear-ends in the novel ways they try to use words to mask their stupidity.
The argument that lower wages and benefits in some way help our consumer economy thrive has never made sense to me. The workers in Chattanooga retained their rights to earn lower wages, essentially without rights (a hallmark of “right to work” laws). Their “no” vote makes for something of a pyrrhic “victory” by their enemies. Their loss translates into less money for the local economy, and less (rather than greater) security for everyone.
The last chapter relating to this decision is yet to be written. At some point, the people who make this country, the workers who earn the money to spend, will take stock and enough of them will decide that they need to rise up and take action, one town, one place at a time. The revolution will be a quiet one, largely out of the public eye, but it will happen.
For me, it can’t happen too soon. For the anti-union folks who try to keep workers down, this radical development, this quiet revolution, will be a blessing, not a curse….
There is a lot of chatter about the defeat of the unionizing effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, especially since the company was not against the union – in fact, tacitly favored it. The big opposition was from politics and business, it seemed, and, of course, the majority of potential members who voted no.
I’m an old union organizer guy.
The vote doesn’t surprise me at all.
We are a society of individualists, and belonging to a union is a group activity, and of course, there are dues. The most virulently anti-union guy I’ve come across in my own family network was – it turns out – a retired Union guy, and his wife as well (meat-cutter and teacher in Iowa). Why? You can name the excuses he has for hating unions now, when he benefited directly from one for his entire career as a rank-and-file member, and benefits now in retirement….
But, of course, the big losers are business. Higher Wages are synonymous with Union; higher wages are also synonymous with more money to spent in the local economy. Higher wages have a tendency to ripple up to other sectors, with the same positive effect.
So, why is business against higher wages? You can name the excuses.
And the politicians fear monger against “union bosses”, and make “union” a synonym for “Detroit” (which itself is more a reflection of management lack of foresight than anything else).
Don’t just blame the UAW for lousy organizing, or the “no” voters for being stupid.
In my retirement, in volunteer organizations dedicated to peace and justice, I see the same short term thinking as exhibited by a majority in the VW election. People like to be free agents because they don’t have to compromise, which is the nature of organizations, like unions.
So, in one particular alliance of 75 organizations I’m very familiar with, there is long standing and thus far successful resistance to change the alliance to an organization which will have far more power than the sum of its parts. I doubt it will ever cross the bar into being an organization.
Rather than share resources, and help each other, and compromise a bit on very similar ideals, for the greater good, the choice, rather, is to compete for already scarce resources, and everyone gets weaker and weaker.
It makes no sense at all, but it is how the world (at least in the present day U.S.) works, I guess.
I’d like to hear your thoughts.
from Bruce F, Feb. 20:
The ideology of American Exceptionalism, in my opinion, had a lot to do with what happened in TN. To be truly exceptional, one must be a free, independent, autonomous individual. That is how the work force in “right to work” states see themselves. They are essentially independent contractors unconnected to & in competition with other workers. They are able to sell their labor to the lowest bidder if they chose because they are free, independent, and exceptional. I think they feel they’ve fought and won this battle of the continuing battle to separate the American frontier from evil European influence that America had separated itself from in the 18th century. The irony is sad.
The struggle for worker rights is important & shouldn’t be marginalized, but the larger issue of VW’s, as the world’s second largest auto manufacturer, connection to the auto/fossil fuel complex is pushed aside in this story. If you want to separate labor from larger existential issues use jobs as a wedge. This was evident to me last April at the State Department’s only public hearing on the KeystonePL in Grand Island, NE, where organized labor was out in force in support of the pipeline, which was based on jobs that would be created.
from Fred H. Feb 21: Nice job with this piece. I just saw Illinois Gov. Mike Quinn (think I have that right) get into an edgy discussion on the auto worker organizing vote with the Tennessee Gov. on tonight’s News Hour. Quinn roasted the Volunteers Gov. on the vote and the minimum wage issue as well.
Your wrote about the veneration of the individual by some in our society. These are folks who no longer trust government to do anything (unless they’re in need of its assistance and except for government programs that benefit them). To me, idealizing the individual, their aspirations and goals whatever they might be, creates a class of iconoclasts that “stand their own ground” on any issue they stake out. No compromise, no prisoners. There was a time when such thinking was the rage with Alaskan hermits and Idaho loners who created their own isolated two-acre empires and reserved meaningful interactions for squirrel and mushrooms. Now such folk seem to some to be just the right kind of people to be running the country.
* – The writer of this post:
* My opinion is no more or less relevant than any other. It seems relevant, though, in this case, to at least qualify myself as one who has knowledge of things relating to Unions.
Behind me every minute of every day that I sit at this computer is an honor I received in May, 2001:

(click to enlarge)
Text: AHEM [Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota] Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Dick Bernard to Honor Outstanding Union Leadership 2001
I did not expect to receive such an Award, which I received the year after I retired. Bob Marcotte, another long-time Union leader in the same local, and myself, were the first recipients of this Award, which is now given annually to a union activist by the Union in the largest school district in Minnesota.
I’m proud of this Award.
I began teaching in 1963, in those good old days before things like collective bargaining and such came to public education. Yes, there was “bargaining”, in the sense that a teacher committee could (as sometimes referred to) “bring and beg” requests for a raise. It was my parents lot in life as teachers for their entire careers, which spanned from 1929-72: all single year contracts “at will” to renew or non-renew as the School Board saw fit.
The road to that Award of mine began in the spring of 1968 when I made a decision based on an observation: my teaching colleague, local Teacher’s Association President Ron Swanson, was carrying a cardboard box full of Association files, and in addition was complaining of severe migraine headaches. It was at that moment that I, a young member, single parent of a four year old, decided that I needed to help out in some way, and so it went for over 30 years, most of that as Teacher Union staff. As the saying goes, “been there, done that”. (As an aside, at that time, I was driving the first new car I’d ever owned, a plain-Jane 1965 imported Volkswagen which I purchased, then, for about $1500. It served me well.)

Today’s unions deal more with an entitled generation who have been led to believe they are above things like organizing into groups. There has to be more person-to-person “scratch” organizing than what we became too accustomed to in past years.
There is something to be learned from the past.

1. The organization which gave me the Award in 2001 is part of the organization which is the largest single union in the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Education Minnesota.
2. By coincidence, the beginning of my staff career in the Union in 1972 coincided with the first collectively bargained teacher contract under the Minnesota Public Employment Relations Act (PELRA). The original Act, which remains in effect to this day, included a specific provision for “Meet and Confer” which seems, on reflection, to be quite similar to the Volkswagen Labor-Management Council. “Meet and Confer” gave no decision making rights to the union or employees, but was, and continues, to be an excellent forum to discuss and seek resolution to problems.
The bi-partisan group of legislators and Governors who created PELRA in 1971 knew what they were doing, then.
3. An excellent contemporary “primer” on the psychological underpinnings of keeping people down in a subordinate position is the recent movie, “Twelve Years a Slave”, about a free New York Negro who was kidnapped and sold into slavery 1841-53. The film is based on his own accounting of his experience as a slave in Louisiana (more about that, here).
As we all know, from life, “slavery” manifests in many ways, in many contexts, and can afflict us all.

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