In fact, no institution played a larger role in the construction of postwar American liberalism than the UAW. Under Reuther’s leadership, the union provided funds to civil rights activists who conducted the Montgomery bus boycott, paid for the buses and sound system at the 1963 March on Washington, detailed staff and dollars to the efforts to build municipal employee unions and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, donated resources to the fledgling efforts of Students for a Democratic Society and the National Organization for Women, and helped fund the first Earth Day. It lobbied for every liberal initiative on Capitol Hill and volunteered its considerable expertise to the development of many Great Society programs. It led the opposition within the AFL-CIO against the federation’s uber-hawkish Cold War policies. It campaigned, then and now, for Democratic candidates, which is the primary reason why Tennessee’s Republican pols opposed it so vehemently.
None of this was particularly helpful, however, in winning the vote in Chattanooga. Since its founding in 1936, many UAW members have been Appalachian whites come north to the factories of Midwestern cities. Some became union leaders and supporters while others co-existed uneasily with the growing numbers of African-Americans in the union’s ranks. During World War II, the union was stretched to the limits by its efforts to forestall nearly daily racial violence on factory floors. In the plants of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, there was often a white backlash to the union’s aggressive promotion of civil rights, but it came from a minority of workers. This was the legacy that the union brought South, and it was this—not its fictitious reputation for thuggishness—that made the union so hard a sell to some of Chattanooga’s workers. The union’s more recent support for President Obama—hardly a popular figure in Eastern Tennessee—epitomized the politics that repelled a number of the union’s opponents. So did the UAW’s backing of Democratic candidates who, its opponents alleged, threatened to take away the workers’ guns (though the UAW, like most unions with blue-collar members, has largely steered clear of gun control issues).
By the same token, however, the UAW’s liberalism doubtless was one factor that helped it win a landmark representation election late last year among a very different group of workers—the grad student/teaching assistants at NYU. At first glance, this might not seem an election the UAW could win. Though the UAW had organized the university’s grad students more than a decade ago, the National Labor Relations Board during the George W. Bush administration (when Bush’s appointees comprised a majority on the board) ruled that grad students couldn’t form a union under the National Labor Relations Act, and the students’ contract with the university was nullified. Unlike Volkswagen management, the NYU administration then opposed the union’s and the students’ efforts to win representation outside the NLRB’s jurisdiction. For eight years, NYU refused to let the students vote, but the UAW continued to build support for a vote not only among the T.A.s but among the city’s Democratic elected officials, who were as predisposed to the effort as Tennessee’s Republicans were appalled at the thought of a UAW victory in their state. Last year, the university agreed to let the students vote and to stay neutral in the election. By a margin of 620 to 10, the students voted to have the UAW represent them.
Of the 390,000 or so UAW members, fully 45,000 are employed at universities (until the NYU election, all of them public universities, which are not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction). The union’s commitment not just to its workers but to progressive causes is a clear asset in organizing T.A.s and other university employees, just as it was a obstacle in organizing auto workers in the South.
Thus the UAW of 2014—able to win overwhelming support from Greenwich Village grad students, but unable to win a majority of Chattanooga auto workers, who rejected the union’s bid by a 712-to-626 margin. If America broke neatly along class lines, the UAW should have won Chattanooga in a romp and floundered at NYU. But as many unions have discovered, generally to their woe, the politics of race and culture often eclipse those of class in the United States. That’s one big part of American exceptionalism. That’s just—alas—the American way.