In a recent column, former Freedom Summer volunteer Ron Carver took me to task over my writings about the as yet unsuccessful attempts by organized labor throughout the South to organize the workers in “Detroit South” auto plants as a means to shore up plummeting membership in flagship unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW).
So egregious are my views on the danger that I believe organized labor presents to the burgeoning Southern auto industry, according to Carver, that he compared me to racist Mississippi lawmen from the 1960s and members of the White Citizens Council.
Carver, an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, offers this basic argument as to why anyone who opposes unionization of auto workers in Mississippi is a racist and pines away for the days of Jim Crow: “Because they bring a measure of democracy to the workplace, union rights are civil rights.”
There’s the point at which Carver makes my original argument for me.
Even ultra-liberal organizations like one Mr. Carver represents and liberal politicians who are pro-union know that union rights indeed, under existing federal law, are not civil rights.
That’s why in July of this year, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison unveiled legislation that would make union organizing a legally protected civil right. It’s a bill that’s well in line with Mr. Carver’s views, but it underscores the inarguable fact that as a matter of law, union rights are not yet civil rights.
As I’ve written before on this topic, the fact is that cloaking union organization efforts in the political vestments of the civil rights movement is a tactic designed to change what is at its core an argument about money into one about virtue.
Despite these tactics, auto workers across the South have rejected this political sleight of hand despite – as Mr. Carver tried to do with me – false accusations of racism and intolerance simply because one sees the UAW as less than a desirable presence in the new Southern auto plants. Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, rejected UAW representation by a vote of 712 to 626 on Valentine’s Day.
The union vote in Chattanooga represented the UAW’s first vote at a major foreign automaker’s assembly plant since the union’s failed attempt to gain the right to represent Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee, in 2001. The union lost that vote by a 2-to-1 margin.
In addition to VW in Chattanooga, the UAW also has been attempting to unionize workers at Nissan Motor Company plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and at a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama.
Why? Is it because of worries about civil rights? No. It’s because the UAW fears that so-called “transplants” – or foreign-owned automakers with plants in the U.S. – will pull down wages and benefits at UAW-represented domestic auto plants in Detroit.
UAW membership sharply declined since reaching a peak of nearly 1.5 million in 1979 to almost 400,000 in 2012, due to automation at auto plants and the large share of the U.S. auto market for U.S. automakers that has shifted to foreign auto manufacturers.
Drawing parallels between the struggles of blacks in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s over the right to vote, to attend quality schools, to public accommodations, to university admission, even to sit and eat a meal at a lunch counter and union representation in 2014 is a stretch.
Give Carver and others credit, however, for the sheer moxie it takes to openly brand people with whom you disagree over UAW politics as racists. It’s a strategy that sends a lot of union dissenters scurrying for political cover.
Mississippi taxpayers of all races have invested economic incentives in both Nissan and Toyota auto plants in Mississippi and in the suppliers who serve them. It’s not in the least racist to oppose market influences that threaten the economic stability of those companies and the Mississippi jobs they represent.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist.Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.