At the beginning of the year, it became apparent that the rank and file Volvo workers were fed up with work conditions and their terms of employment. It’s common knowledge that mass layoffs are part and parcel of Volvo operations in Dublin, new hires get pushed out, veteran workers get to stay on as part of their seniority established in prior contracts between Volvo and UAW Local 2069. It’s also common knowledge that as the strike was pending the UAW leadership cozied up to Volvo bosses and collaborated with them more so than fought to represent the interests of the rank and file workers. These conditions set the stage for this year’s strike, and by and large explain why the strike played out as it did.
In February, Volvo workers at the Dublin plant voted in favor of strike authorization. This was the first instance of many clashes between the rank and file and the UAW leadership under local president Matt Blondino. It wouldn’t be for another two months until Volvo workers actually went on strike. Many workers questioned why there was such a long gap between the vote for strike authorization and actually going out on the picket line.
Many workers claimed this was intentionally done by UAW leadership to give time for the Volvo bosses to prepare for the strike, allowing them time to transfer trucks and minimize disruption as much as possible to their supply chains. Simultaneously, the global semiconductor shortage was happening and many workers claimed the timing of strike action was done in conjunction with the desires of the Volvo bosses to deal with the threat of delays in production. It was as if the strike was killing two birds with one stone – letting workers vent their frustrations over issues like the two tier wage system, while shutting down operations due to the semiconductor shortage. This would partially explain why UAW leadership quickly tried to call off the strike with the first tentative agreement before any votes of approval by the rank and file had been cast. This development only furthered the divide between the rank and file and the UAW leadership.
It became apparent the union was accountable mainly to its international body and the Volvo bosses rather than the workers. The interests of the corporation were more important than the interests of the workers. This is not an uncommon feature of the contemporary labor movement, but actually is the norm and why many working class militants refer to these unions as “business unions”. The unions, while nominally representing the workers, are in reality another tool of control over the workers for the sake of capitalist interests. We can see many other examples to highlight this fact, such as the decline of strike actions over the last several decades as the business unions normalized “no strike” clauses in their contracts. In fact since UAW Local 2069 was established back in the 70s there have only been three strike actions (including this years’) in its entire history as a union. This is a testament to how much the business unions work to avoid any clashes with the corporations to the detriment of workers.
The business unions no longer pander to the reality of class struggle – that anything won by workers is a result of a fight between corporations and workers. They now promote the ideology of the bosses which says workers and corporations have a shared interest and that there is no irreconcilable contradiction between the bosses and the workers. When the motto becomes “do what’s best for business,” that means more exploitation and sacrifice on the part of workers, not on the part of the CEOs and shareholders of the corporations. This is especially effective in a place like Dublin, Virginia where the local economy has been destroyed by a shuttered manufacturing industry and largely replaced with the service sector – which is notorious for providing low wages and little-to-no benefits. When workers speak out and demand better we often hear that they “ought to just be grateful for having one of the best jobs in the area.”
The Volvo bosses know all of this and love to propagandize it to workers in order to quell any resistance to their neverending drive for profit. Multinational corporations love to set up shop in the South because they know Southern workers are more easily exploited – there’s less union density, less worker organization, and less resistance from workers here to push back on their greed. They know we are more inclined to accept lower standards than in other parts of the country or world which have stronger and better organized workforces.
All of these things make it even more impressive that after the sabotage of the strike by the union leadership the rank and file pushed back and strongly voted down the first tentative agreement between the union and Volvo. Workers were rightfully paranoid their votes would be altered so they took pictures of their ballots with their union cards to ensure no tampering of the results.
This happened not just once, but three times as the strike carried on into July. And after the first attempt at strike sabotage by the union leadership, they conceded that they would not call off the strike until after the membership voted on any future tentative contract, giving them approval to do so. No veteran worker can recall out of all the prior strikes to happen at the Dublin Volvo plant that any strike had carried on this long. This was historic and probably the most significant strike action in local history. Unfortunately both the international union and Volvo were able to intimidate and successfully sabotage the strike into ending. After the rank and file voted down the third tentative contract the UAW leadership cancelled their vote and forced them to recast their ballots with the expectation of approving it. This was issued from the international body and newly-appointed UAW President Ray Curry, who negotiated the contract.
After months of the business union undermining the strikers, and issuing only scraps from its massive war chest, the workers on the ground could no longer sustain the strike. In fact, much of the support that strike funds usually cover came from other community members in the area instead, providing mutual aid in the form of food and late night coffee. Local militant workers strove to amplify the voices of the people on the ground, who were in revolt against the union leadership as much as the corporation. In an interview with a journalist for an unpublished article in the Atlantic Magazine, those same supporters were told that they received the blame from the UAW leadership as to why the strike went on as long as it did. While we would love to think we had such a huge role in this strike, ultimately that credit belongs to the Volvo workers. The UAW leadership doesn’t want to acknowledge the divide between the rank and file and the leadership and must find a scapegoat to blame as to why they lost control over the workers.
This historic strike can teach the local working class many valuable lessons. Among them being that business unions actively collaborate with the corporate bosses to contain worker rebellion, which explains why we have witnessed such a steady decline of the labor movement and material conditions of the working class. In order to reverse this trend, workers need to establish independent worker organizations that actually are democratic and controlled by the rank and file while rooted in the recognition of the class struggle where we don’t confuse our enemies for our friends. For those workers who already find themselves in a business union the task is to create independent worker organization within these unions and prepare to fight their leadership for more internal democracy, more reformation of the unions and potentially prepare for expulsion from these business unions as troublemakers.
This is the only way the local working class will change its fortunes. Thankfully, we now have an established independent union open to all workers of the New River Valley, whether they’re already in a union or not. This is the role of the NRV Industrial Workers of the World branch. If you want to help prepare for future struggles where we don’t mince words on who are our friends and who are our enemies then reach out to the union today. No workplace in the NRV is too big or too small for us willing to help fellow workers organize and fight their bosses for better jobs and to build worker power.
– from New River Workers Power