By Mike Elk. Originally published on March 13, 2014 at In These Times.
During the nearly two years he worked at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., Ed Hunter, 43, spent his days bent over, crawling in and out of cars on the assembly line. He believes the posture slowly destroyed his body and led to an accident he suffered in June 2011. “When I got into the car I felt something go,” he says. “I just lost my foot—I couldn’t feel it.”
When he went to the doctor the next month, Hunter learned that he had ruptured several disks in his back. Despite this, Hunter says, his team leader called him a “pussy” for taking light duty. So Hunter sucked it up and worked through the pain.
Hunter eventually began throwing up blood on the assembly line from an ulcer, which he thinks was caused by taking too many painkillers. He could no longer work on the line, so he was put on unpaid leave in November 2011. Now, he’s unable to make his mortgage payments; rather than fall behind and damage his credit, he and his wife decided to sell their home.
“When I got hurt at the plant my whole world came to an end,” Hunter told me over Texas steak melts at a Waffle House in Chattanooga last month.
When Chattanooga Volkswagen workers began to talk about organizing with the United Auto Workers, Hunter campaigned vigorously for the union, hoping in part that it would help him get a job at the plant again doing light work. But more broadly, he and several other pro-union workers say they thought a union could combat the culture of bullying and machismo that pushed employees like Hunter to the breaking point.
Last month, Hunter’s dreams were dashed when the UAW lost the union election at the plant by a mere 43 votes. The defeat came as a surprise to many, including Hunter. Volkswagen had pledged to be neutral, removing the typical management roadblocks to unionization. However, politicians, special-interest groups and—according to exclusive In These Timesinterviews with workers—low-level Volkswagen supervisors engaged in unsanctioned anti-union activity.
Conversations with workers on both sides of the union battle reveal that the macho culture at the plant—which Hunter and others hoped a union could combat—helped fuel the anti-union campaign by low-level management and workers, who stressed obedience to authority and masculine self-reliance as reasons to reject the UAW.
As pro-union workers at Volkswagen attempt to organize to win over the additional votes that will be needed to unionize the plant in the future, they are seeking ways to overcome this culture. It’s a tough one to shake, however, because it draws on deeply ingrained codes of Southern white masculinity, which hold great sway at a plant that workers estimate is about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly male. (In These Times reached out to several of the plant’s black workers for interviews, but they declined.)
While acknowledging these historical currents, many of the pro-union Volkswagen workers interviewed by In These Timeswere critical of outsiders who say that the South is impossible to organize. These workers are looking to alternative narratives of the South, and even the role of anti-Confederacy white Southerners in the Civil War, for inspiration.
The Toyota Way
Lon Gravett, 46, who was placed on leave from Chattanooga Volkswagen in November 2012 after blowing out his elbow, says he was motivated to form a union because of what he calls a high-school “bully” mentality he’s seen in many factories, including Volkswagen.
“Work is not supposed to be a popularity contest, but that’s exactly what it is, unless you’re protected [by a union],” says Gravett, who since graduating from high school in 1985 has worked in various factories, including Dupont, Cleveland Tubing, Polyloom and Volkswagen. “You’re either a whipping boy that’ll go in and break your back while others stand around, or you’re the one standing around [doing the whipping].”
“I have been in too many factories too many times and I’m rarely in the clique,” he continues. “I’m usually over there nursing a sore back.”
Gravett and other Volkswagen workers trace this supervisory style to a management culture known as the Toyota Way, developed at the non-union Toyota factories that dot the South and eventually adopted by supervisors at Volkswagen and other plants.
The Toyota Way refers to 14 principles that are drilled into the heads of workers and supervisors. In 2004, engineering professor Jeffrey K. Liker, who’d studied the Toyota plants extensively, popularized the style with his hot-selling book The Toyota Way, which quickly became the bible for managers who wanted to learn the secrets of Toyota’s success. (In the most recent quarter, Toyota made as much in profits as its two closest competitors—Volkswagen and General Motors—combined.)
“’Toyota Way’ can mean a bundle of things,” explains Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “The original [meaning] is lean production and so-called team production—multiskilling—which is a way of having just enough workers to strew the line and keep everyone working full out.”
In other words, supervisors trained in the Toyota Way promote a sense of team loyalty and an unquestioning allegiance to the company, which deters workers from speaking up against management.
“The real ‘Toyota Way’ is a culture of control,” Masaki Saruta, a Japanese business professor at Chukyo University who wrote several books on Toyota, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. Saruta explained that the fear of bucking supervisors is so strong that many inside of Toyota were afraid of speaking up about accelerator flaws that led to one of the biggest recalls of vehicles in American history.
Don Jackson, the plant manager who got operations underway when the Chattanooga Volkswagen factory first opened four years ago, was a 20-year veteran of Toyota. He boasted to the Chattanooga Times Free Press of importing practices and personnel from Toyota and other plants.
Hunter says that the culture in the plant changed dramatically when the original Volkswagen managers, who are accustomed to working with unions and encountering dissent, returned to Germany, and Jackson’s managers came in.
“The Germans were much more friendly and willing to teach. As they left, the management became more and more off-putting. They didn’t want to be bothered and did not take our suggestions kindly,” says Hunter. “It was their way or no way.”
Hunter says that the supervisors who pushed his body to the breaking point continually cited the Toyota Way principles of team loyalty. When Hunter complained that he couldn’t do the strenuous work, he says that his supervisor “taunted [him] with not being a team player when the line was short.”
Hunter is not the only worker who spoke of harsh treatment on the assembly line leading to injury. Another Volkswagen worker, Lauren Feinauer, says that she has been overworked to the point where her hands go numb.
A rogue anti-union campaign
Lichtenstein explains that the Toyota Way style of management seeks to promote the idea that every worker is a valued member of a team, and to instill in employees a sense of investment in this teamwork. That sense of investment helps increase production, but it can also be used to turn workers away from unions seeking a role in the workplace.
That may help to explain why, while Volkswagen remained neutral during the union drive, low-level supervisors actively campaigned against the union, according to workers interviewed by In These Times. Byron Spencer, a pro-union worker at the plant, identified one of those anti-union supervisors as a manager who worked at the Toyota plant in San Antonio at the same time that Jackson did.
Jackson, too, played a role in fighting the union effort. Although he had left the plant by the time the UAW campaign began, he made public statements against the union, leveraging his reputation as the businessman who had successfully opened the Volkswagen facility and brought jobs to Chattanooga. At an anti-UAW forum in July 2013, he boasted that at Toyota and Volkswagen, he had created a total of “10,000 direct jobs based on doing things the right way and managing the right way.” He implied that “managing the right way” included keeping out unions, saying of his experiences at Toyota plants in Kentucky and Texas, “I’ve learned … how to set up a non-union environment.” (The UAW has been trying unsuccessfully for more than 20 years to organize the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., where Jackson worked.)
As the union campaign at Volkswagen progressed, Jackson continued to campaign against the UAW, appearing at an event organized by the anti-union group Southern Momentum on February 8, just a few days before the election. He also may have been in direct touch with anti-union workers—Mike Burton, a leader of the anti-union effort at the plant, says, “[Don Jackson] and I have gotten to know each other through this experience.”
The pro-union workers believe that statements by Jackson and the low-level supervisors were a major factor in turning the tide against the union.
“There is a reverence of the lower-level management,” says worker Feinauer. She attributes this attitude in part to a paternalistic culture at the plant that rewards loyalty over all else. “I … suspect the good ol’ boy system appeals to some of [the workers] because it may be the only strength they have to get themselves ahead,” she says. “If the playing field were more fair and level, they may have nothing to offer in skill, merit or education.”
Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett agrees. “Yes, I see it daily. [Workers] are yes-men. They are ass-kissers. … All this, hoping to get ahead, and it works, because the supervisors eat it up.”
Experts and workers say this reverence for low-level supervisors may be strengthened by aspects of Southern culture. “There is this long tradition in the region of a (sometimes intense) personal identification with the company, especially among floor-level supervisors, [which] undermines solidarity and union organizing,” says Beth English, director of the Program on Women in the Global Community at Princeton University and author of A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry.
English, whose work centers on the textile industry in the South, notes that even as management positions became increasingly professionalized over the past century, with decision-making isolated from the reality of the shopfloor, “upper-level management continued to frame relations between workers and themselves as intimate and personal. The long-standing paternalistic culture of seeing an employer as a benefactor … perpetuated among floor supervisors,” she explains. “The floor supervisor was the embodiment of that personal management style, so … floor supervisors’ loyalty to management wasn’t framed as disloyalty to the rank and file.”
“One of the rewards of being a supervisor in the South is the power that you wield over the people that work for you,” agrees former Volkswagen worker Gravett. “When this power is threatened, many members of management go to extremes to keep their power. Harassment and the targeting of employees that threaten the system that gives management their power is fairly common.”
Indeed, Spencer, the worker who first went on the record to allege unsanctioned union-busting by low-level supervisors, says he is receiving blowback for speaking to In These Times.
“I have already alienated myself from all supervision with the quote I gave you election night,” says Spencer. “They are definitely going to get me when they get the chance. Hopefully we unionize someday and I still work there by then.”
Other workers interviewed by In These Times during the UAW campaign say that since that defeat, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over the workers who campaigned for the union. Spencer says that several pro-union workers have been transferred from the finishing area of the plant, where turnover is low, to the much more physically strenuous assembly line of the plant, where turnover is much higher.
Lichtenstein says that the fact that Volkswagen did not discipline managers and salaried employees for campaigning against the union raises questions about Volkswagen’s true commitment to its neutrality agreement, which also barred the union from visiting workers unsolicited in their homes or making any negative statements about working conditions at Volkswagen.
“If VW managers from foremen on up were involved in anti-union activities, by word or deed, when the policy of the company was neutrality, then those same lower-level managers should have been disciplined for violating company policy,” says Lichtenstein. “In anti-union campaigns all across America, it is standard operating procedure for top management to discipline, transfer or fire any supervisor who is not fully engaged in the effort to stop the union,” he continues. “This is a reactionary feature of American labor law, but to the extent that top management can wield such power, then the hammer should also fall on foremen and supervisors when they are insufficiently neutral or even pro-union when that is company policy.”
The codes of masculinity
Going forward, Cliett and other pro-union workers see their task as reprogramming their fellow employees so that they no longer see kowtowing to their supervisors as the only way to secure protection at work. Instead, they hope workers will learn to rely on solidarity and collective action.
But in addition to the union-busting efforts of low-level supervisors, pro-union workers are up against codes of masculine self-reliance that hold great sway with the predominantly white and male workforce at the Volkswagen facility.
“There is a kind of machismo to the ‘I don’t need no union to speak for me’ attitude,” says Feinauer, one of the few women working the line at the VW plant.
Cornell School of Industry and Labor Relations Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner says this kind of mentality helps explain why anti-unionism frequently appeals to working-class white men.
Anti-union campaigns, she says, typically combine threats with the promise that “real men can work hard through tough times [to earn] just rewards.” This ideology emphasizes that “there are lots of white men who started out poor just like them who made it all on their own to the very top, and surely they stayed as far away from unions as they could to get there,” Bronfenbrenner says.
By contrast, she says, “Women and people of color know that they never would have survived without their support networks and community allies. Nor do they have any reason to trust any employer who says, ‘Stick with me and some day you will make it to the top,’ because the people who are telling them that are the same white men who are sexually and racially harassing them.”
Indeed, union-busters often play on notions of self-reliance and independence, as per one of the arguments advanced publicly by Don Jackson: that a union is “a third party that drives a wedge between management and employees.” In Martin Jay Levitt’s seminal 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster, he brags that one of his favorite opening lines in anti-union sessions was to ask a married worker if he liked sleeping with his wife. The man would blush, but then would often say yes. Levitt would then ask, “How would you like it if your mother-in-law slept between you and your wife every night?” and explain in demasculinizing terms that this was what a union would do.
But the pro-union Volkswagen workers point out that the tough-guy ideal, if left unchecked, can also drive workers over the edge.
Gravett, who comes from a family of poor white farmers in Dayton, Tenn., knows this all too well. “My dad’s father committed suicide because he got sick and he couldn’t work in the field anymore,” says Gravett. “When he was 9 years old, they would leave a plow at the edge of the field, pack him lunch and feed him breakfast and send him out in the field. When my granddaddy couldn’t work in the fields anymore [at 46], he wasn’t an asset to his family anymore, he was a burden, [and that drove him to suicide].”
To injured worker Hunter, this shows an inherent contradiction of the culture of masculinity: Men must never complain about their work, even if doing so breaks them and means they can no longer do their job.
“Here I’m supposed to be this big strong man. I’m supposed to provide for my family,” says Hunter. “Now all of a sudden, I was sentenced to sit in the house.”
Ironically, the ethos of independence that fueled the anti-union argument didn’t extend to its funding. Southern Momentumraised some $100,000 for anti-union billboards, flyers and 800 T-shirts, as well as a slick, well-produced anti-union website. Of this money, “not one of us [workers] raised a penny,” No 2 UAW Committee leader Mike Burton told In These Times.
‘Anne Braden Southerners’
In the days following the UAW loss, many prominent labor analysts, such as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, were quick to dismiss any missteps by the UAW, instead blaming the loss almost entirely on a Southern culture of resentment dating back to the Civil War.
“In much of the white South, particularly among the Scotch-Irish descendants of Appalachia, the very logic of collective bargaining runs counter to the individualist ethos,” wrote Los Angeles native Harold Meyerson in a column for the American Prospect entitled “When Culture Eclipses Class.” “It was no great challenge for UAW opponents to depict the union as the latest in a long line of Northern invaders.”
It’s true that Chattanooga’s bloody legacy in the Civil War played a large role, rhetorically and psychologically, in the union fight on the same ground a century-and-a-half later. Anti-union forces went so far as to compare the UAW drive to the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, in which the Confederacy defeated Union troops.
“Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union—an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW),” Grover Norquist’s top anti-union consultant, Matt Patterson, wrote in a Chattanooga Times Free Press op-ed that was later turned into a pamphlet and handed out to workers. “One hundred and fifty years ago … the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga.”
But not all Southerners read their history this way. In the days following the union defeat, Michael Gilliland, head of the pro-labor community group Chattanooga for Workers (and my host during my trip to Chattanooga), complained about how Northerners analyzed the UAW loss by relying on a blanket characterization of Southern culture. Gilliland describes himself as an “Anne Braden Southerner,” after the white Kentuckian anti-racist crusader. A civil rights activist, Braden became ensnared in a legal battle after she purchased a home in her name for a black family in 1954. The home was located in a Louisville neighborhood with a restrictive covenant keeping out blacks, and Braden faced criminal charges of sedition, though they were later dropped.
To try to define the South solely by its role in the Civil War, Gilliland believes, is a gross oversimplification of the struggles that have always been waged by some white Southerners against the mainstream culture of oppression. Gilliland points to the religious white Southerners who marched in solidarity on the Trail of Tears with Cherokees and died doing so, as well as those who took up guns in the Coal Creek War of 1891 to fight the use of lease convict labor, leading Tennessee to become one of the first Southern states to end the practice in 1896.
Even the Civil War itself has a mixed legacy, says Gilliland. “There were huge divisions of power in the South during the Civil War, and that inequality is still evident,” he says. There is a long tradition of lower-class whites in the South who, while not necessarily anti-racist, advocated for economic equality because their wages were driven down by slave labor and then, after the Civil War, by the low wages paid to African Americans.
Those divisions were on display during the Battle of Chattanooga, which followed the Union’s defeat at Chickamauga in September 1863. Gilliland feels an affinity with the poor white Southerners from nearby Bledsoe County, Tenn., who volunteered to fight for the Union during the battle because they were pro-free labor and anti-planter class. Also among the men who fought in that battle were “Nickajack” free-labor fighters: Appalachian men from Eastern Tennessee and Northern Alabama who viewed the Confederacy as the pet cause of the rich and engaged in guerilla warfare behind Confederate lines for years. (This mix of these forces was complex: Fighting alongside the pro-free-labor contingent were other men from Eastern Tennessee who, while not necessarily anti-slavery, fought for the North out of reasons of national loyalty or distrust of those who wanted to secede.)
After Chickamauga, retreating Union troops were besieged for nearly two months. A breakthrough came in November 1863, when 14,000 Union troops departed from a hill called Orchard Knob (which faces Gilliland’s house), for what would become known as the Battle of Chattanooga. At the head of the column was the German-born Union Brigadier General August Willich of the 32nd Indiana. Willich had resigned his commission in the Prussian Army in 1846 and commanded an armed faction of the Communist League in Germany’s 1848 Revolution, with Friedrich Engels serving as his aide-de-camp. After the failure of the 1848 Revolution, Willich emigrated to America and volunteered as an officer in the Union Army because of his Communist and anti-slavery views.
As Union troops advanced that day in November, they were taking heavy casualties. But as Nation writer John Nichols—a native of of Union Grove, Wis.—loves to recount, in the desperate moments that followed, 1st Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment picked up the regimental flag from a fallen color bearer. MacArthur charged the hill, shouting “On Wisconsin!”—a battle cry that would echo again during the pro-labor occupation of Wisconsin State Capitol 150 years later. The troops charged onwards and took the top of Missionary Ridge, opening a gateway to the Deep South.
Anti-union forces have won the first round in Chattanooga: Much like the Battle of Chickamauga, the first drive for a union at Volkswagen ended in defeat. But another Battle of Chattanooga has just begun. Once again, it will be decided by a ragtag group—including Germans, Midwesterners, and pro-union Southern whites—fighting in solidarity against the hierarchical, paternalistic aspects of Southern culture.
Gilliland believes that while the challenges are formidable, Southern history shows that a victory at Volkswagen is possible with time and education.
“There are certain themes that play strongly here because they have gone so long unchallenged, like the near total rights of a business owner,” he says. “Most people have honestly never heard the other side; they’ve never been really challenged to think through the inequalities of power, how wages are set, the profitability of their labor, etc.”
“In the same way, most whites have virtually no understanding of the black experience here,” Gilliland continues. “They have never been taught any history past [World War II], know nothing about the civil rights movement or Jim Crow, much less about mass incarceration or the effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color … In this sense, there is an aspect of Southern culture that is an insulator, but it isn’t something natural or unique to us. There is a hump set by the status quo, and we have to constantly get over that hump to do real work.”
But ultimately, Gilliland asks, “What does it mean to be Southern? Is the Confederacy really ‘more Southern’ than the civil rights movement? Is an ingrained distrust for unions more South than Moral Monday? Who gets to say?”
Full disclosure: Elk’s mother, Cynthia Holden Elk, was a member of the United Auto Workers before the Volkswagen plant she worked at in Westmoreland, Pa. closed in 1988. UAW is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.