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UAW Organizing Failures 8/23/2017
Reviewing the Nissan/Canton Campaign
By: Ricardo Torres

Did the UAW learn anything from Volkswagen? Apparently not, as they allowed themselves to be defeated by an even larger margin at Nissan.


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Back when Bob King was serving as the UAW President, I found out that he brought Richard Bensinger on board to serve in the position of Organizing Director. I thought this was a smart move on King's part as Bensinger had already proven himself to be an intelligent and pragmatic thinker while the Organizing Director for the AFL/CIO.

I worked with Bensinger throughout the country and at the AFL/CIO George Meany Institute on developing advanced organizing tactics and advancing national standards for organizing departments. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for employers), these efforts never succeeded due to union "turf wars" and the strong belief that the affiliate unions knew how to best organize within their own cultures. The truth was that the unions' own stubbornness and ignorance of the advanced organizing tactics that we developed, along with their ignorance of the workers' diversity and the need to remain steadfast in the political arenas, proved to be insurmountable barriers.

King and Bensinger were the best of friends. I knew them both very well when I was a union official and spent much time with them belly-up to a bar solving the world's labor problems. Bensinger's stated goal was to develop a strategy to organize the transplant foreign auto plants. He was perfect for the position, so you can understand my surprise when I learned about the vote count at the Mississippi Nissan Automotive Plant. Out of 3,700 workers, 1,307 voted for the union, while 2,244 showed their allegiance to Nissan and self-representation. This, by definition, was a true landslide.

I wondered what happened to the Richard Bensinger I knew and worked with in years past. I found out that Bensinger left the UAW when Bob King's term as UAW President expired. I further learned that Mark Haasis, out of Region 4, was responsible for the embarrassing loss in Mississippi. How could they go to vote with a workforce that is against you almost 2:1?

To understand the loss, and the future of UAW organizing, I started to dig into the campaign and spoke with some connections I still have at UAW Solidarity House that I retained friendship with despite our opposing positions.

Analysis of the Campaign's Errors

Nissan surely benefitted from the UAW's mistakes. The UAW allowed Nissan to control the narrative from the onset of the campaign. While it is true that Nissan did a decent job of maintaining employee loyalty, the union completely failed to recognize the fact that their stand-by wage concern was a non-starter in an area where the cost of living is such that an Average Joe can make a decent living without an advanced education on Nissan's relatively high wages. The union never bothered to account for this economic reality when planning their unsuccessful communication strategy. The union also made the basic mistake of not embedding themselves in the community.

The union turned this into a civil rights campaign and made a bigger mistake by telling the 77% of full time (and 95% of temporary) workers who are African Americans that they are "victims". What about the other 20% of the workers? Besides, no worker expects a union to perform a civil rights campaign. Workers are not looking for the union to fix society, but only to help them gain a position of influence within their work environment.

The union also made mistakes with the politicians and celebrities they brought in to help win the hearts and minds of the employees. They made particularly poor choices with Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover, both of who came off flat with the workers. In theory, bringing in politicians and celebrities is not a bad idea, but it should have been a very small part of the overall strategy, and they should resonate with the concerns that workers have presented. Instead, the union held public protests in front of dealerships to gather public support. While this might be effective in a protracted, well-funded smear campaign with a passionate message, their efforts fell short of delivering their message in this instance.

The union attempted to work with religious leaders, but this again failed. Working with religious leaders can be good when taking the "moral high ground". However, it is only effective from the church's pulpit, or in one-on-one communications with workers that combines the religious leader's influence on the community with the union's message. Involving religion does not have that great of an impact during rallies or when picketing a plant.

Additionally, the UAW completely missed their target demographics by bringing in a mostly Caucasian staff from around the country.

How the UAW Failed

  • The UAW should have brought in workers from other transplant automotive companies.
  • The UAW should have targeted the workers' emotions on the issues at hand for the workers.
  • The UAW should have gotten a solid majority of cards signed/support before filing a petition and then spent 90% of their time empowering the supportive workers to take ownership of the campaign.
  • The UAW should have performed grass-roots political-style campaigning, such as house meetings between small, solidified groups, which could have ultimately covered the entire workforce.
  • The UAW should have dealt with workers' issues on a much more personal level and secured support with a more centralized movement, rather than the top-down, civil-rights-focused approach taken.

The UAW made many mistakes, but they had painted themselves into a corner by making the campaign such a public spectacle. By the time the petition was filed, the rhetoric was strong enough that the UAW would have displayed significant weakness by withdrawing the petition to re-strategize. Instead, the UAW forged ahead lacking a connection between the organizing department and workers. Only the union knows for certain was said behind closed doors before the vote, but they were unable to turn back without embarrassing key players and had to live with the results.

They obviously lost the connection with the workers if they did not see the big hit coming! The union appears to have let egos get in the way by focusing on their perceived understanding of the Nissan workers' issues, rather than simply letting the workers drive the campaign and put their own emotional energy into the organizing drive.

The UAW either cannot count or cannot organize. Either way, when I was an organizing director, I never would have settled for these results; if my organizers had failed like this, they would have been fired.

Ultimately, Nissan won because they knew their employees and the UAW completely failed to learn about them.

Scandal, or Reprieve?

The UAW was provided reprieve from their mistakes just prior to the election by way of the scandal involving a Fiat Chrysler executive and wife of a deceased union leader. This scandal revolves around millions of dollars reportedly being stolen from a fund dedicated to helping union workers gain the skills necessary to retain employment. Of course, this had a negative impact on the campaign, but it is completely plausible that the UAW would have lost despite this scandal, as they certainly deserved to with all of the mistakes they made. While the scandal did deliver the organizers of the Canton campaign with a face-saving moment, the news dealt a devastating blow to the rest of the union. The UAW can blame the high-profile loss on the scandal, but they now have a serious black eye that must be dealt with. They can attempt to alleviate some of the problem by admitting that some leaders were corrupt and making statements that the situation will be rectified, which is exactly what Dennis Williams did in an opinion piece full of cherry-picked facts, omitted data, and tu quoque fallacies.

The campaign in Canton is not over yet, as the union still has several unfair labor practices on the table, which could result in a revote. However, the UAW should take a long, hard look at their strategy to have any chance of winning a foreign transplant campaign in the South. Remember, Bob King, the former President of the UAW, faced reality when he was in office and commented that the survival of the UAW rested on a successful organizing campaign at a foreign transplant in the South. The UAW will fight tooth and nail for their survival, but they have a lot of work to do if they want to penetrate such a target. They simply do not appear ready to tackle this target, but we can all expect them to go down swinging.


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