Billy Yank and Johnny Reb Part II

UAW Nashville 1

The news that the United Auto Workers lost a union election at a Nashville VW plant has sent the labor movement into something of a what the hell just happened spin. Unfortunately, I think that the results were preordained, back in about 1863. We have an interesting history in this country of well meaning northerners going into the backward and dirty south to enlighten these poor sons and daughters of Dixie, and it just doesn’t work because the Northerners aren’t trusted and the track record hasn’t been all that great. Hell, the post-union industrialization of the South wasn’t by VW but it was by Northern Manufacturers who realized that they could make a lot more money moving steel from Pittsburgh to Birmingham and screw the workers in Birmingham a lot less than they were being screwed by their own boss class, but screw them a lot more than they were screwing over their own workers in the North. One might write an interesting history of American Expansion and Exception as a race to exploit the more easily exploited at cost to the somewhat less exploited. Now, the industrialization of the South screwed over a lot of people, and the big companies took the blame; it was possible to find Southern bosses and they did. Reconstruction ultimately turned out OK for the Southerners although not ideal from their point of view; hence the 100 year affiliation to the Democratic party although not necessarily the party of Roosevelt and Johnson but something else entirely.

King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows ‘cross the water,
King Harvest has surely come
I work for the union ’cause she’s so good to me;
And I’m bound to come out on top,
That’s where she said I should be
I will hear every word the boss may say,
For he’s the one who hands me down my pay
Looks like this time I’m gonna get to stay,
I’m a union man, now, all the way
The smell of the leaves,
From the magnolia trees in the meadow,
King Harvest has surely come — Robbie Robertson, the Band

real JR and BY

Billy Yank and Johnny Reb compare resumes There’s a wonderful moment in Gettysburg when an Officer of the 2oth Maine is talking with some Southern prisoners, primarily with a private. It’s pretty interesting in that I think it’s incredibly real and captures something that we miss at times. They ask each other where they’re from, and the Rebel says, “Tennessee. How about you?” The Yank says, “Maine. I’ve never been to Tennessee.” The Reb says, “Don’t reckon I’ve ever been to Tennesse either.” The Yank officer says, ” I don’t mean no disrespect about you all fighting, but I have to wonder, what are you fighting for?” Reb private responds, “What are you fighting for?”  Yank responds, “Why to free the slaves, of course. Preserve the union.” Reb says, “I can’t talk for anyone else, but I don’t care about no darkies one way or the other. I’m fightin’ for my Raaattts.” Yank has no clue what he means, and says “What?” Rebel says, “My Raattts. That’s what all of us are fighting for.” The conversation continues, they agree that the war is an awful thing, they wish it was over and the Rebel admits to some acceptance that since he’s a prisoner, he’ll get to sit the rest of it out. They wish each other good luck and say “See you in Hell, Billy Yank.” “See you in Hell, Johnny Reb.” And one marches off to prison camp, and the other to Little Round Top.

If people like the UAW realized what that private was telling us and them, and what the scene was telling us, they might have been far more successful. First of all, we have radically different understandings of why we do things and what we’re doing. Lots of reasons for that, and I’ve talked about  some of them before. But, we don’t understand each other — the UAW can talk about industrial democracy and having a way to influence the company through the union; the Southerner doesn’t understand Industrial Democracy (Of course, neither does the UAW) and since he knows his bosses, he trusts them. The VW plant management may not have been actively opposed to the union drive, but they’ve treated the workers well and haven’t lied to them too much. The workers want to be left alone and allowed to work and be treated fairly. The Germans have done a good job of that. So…


Now, I’ve had a checkered career, and have talked to a lot of people over the years in a lot of professions, including those in State Workforce Development Programs. A few years ago at a Conference, I was chatting with fellow Vet who a honcho in the Alabama Workforce Development Department and a guy who was working in the South Carolina Workforce Development. They told both told me that BMW in South Carolina and Mercedes Benz in Alabama had far lower turnover, fewer problems, lower unemployment insurance rates and lower employee incidence of lawsuits than the Honda and Nissan plants in both states. The Alabama guy said the same thing about the Koreans and Hyundai. Far more success than Honda with their workers. The reasons were simple; the German and the Korean attitudes toward the workers and the resulting culture were really far more attractive. At Mercedes, the workers all basically dress the same on the floor — the blue lab/worker coat that those of us who’ve spent time in Germany are familiar with. There is no reserved parking for the bosses, it’s all first come/first serve except for handicapped parking. The example that they both shared vigorously was the subject of litter — at the German and Korean plants, if one of the bosses passed some litter, he’d stop and pick it up, either put it in his pocket or toss it in the trash. No big deal. At the Japanese plants, it was the opposite; before a Japanese manager would pick up a piece of litter, he would go find an American to have him pick up the litter. Consider that. As an occasional management consultant, I can tell you that outsiders offering opinions about all the crap ” you all are doing wrong” doesn’t work well — “It’s the stranger with a stopwatch, brief case asking to borrow your watch so they can break it”- syndrome built large.

So, the UAW goes south. They pick a plant that generally has good relations with the workers and where the company sees a union on the German Works Council model as a way to have better relations and produce higher quality. However, the company wasn’t doing the organizing drive; the UAW was. I trust Bob, but who the hell are you?

So, while the Republican party did their people at the Nashville plant a major disservice by lying about the impact of the effort to organize on future industrial growth and continued production, the real disservice had to do with strategic stupidity on the part of the UAW. Go for the low hanging fruit, not the one’s where you need to build a crane to pick at it. Or a step ladder. Go after the people the workers don’t like, not those they more or less are indifferent to or actually like and trust. Next, the scene referenced above is interesting because the accents are so telling although a rural Maine accent is in a lot of ways not that different than a mountain Tennessee pattern. But, make certain the folks doing the organizing are “from around here.” After forever in the Army, I consistently talk in a way that makes people think I’m from 100 miles or so south of them unless I’m in the south where they figure I’m from 100 miles north. If you’re not driving a Ford or Chevvy, Pickup or a  VW Golf GT, why were you in Nashville as an organizer? If not, at least drive a 5.0 Mustang or a Five Liter Charger if you’re headed to a Japanese plant. Get people who drive those sorts of cars, who like country music, and can sing along to Freebird and Sweet home Alabama.

The key thing about the South is the importance of family. Since they’ve been so embattled over time and so battered by various outsiders who mean well, the importance of “kin” among working class Southerners is a key thing. I was trying to enforce some simple Army regulations and found myself accused while in exile with the Reserves in Texas of being ” a goddamned outside Yankee agitator.” I made a point of being culturally nonsensitive despite which I still managed to make some friends for whom I still care deeply. Last time I cried over someone’s death who wasn’t family was when I heard that the S3 Secretary in the Brigade I was assigned to died from cancer. But, I was there long enough to lead by example and develop some expert and referent power. Just show up and start preaching, especially about what “the union is going to do for you…” without that and the native Texan or Alabamian or Tennessean hears some Yankee saying, “We’re gonna take your women, corn and horses, and there’s nothing much you can do about it.” If the meaning of the message is what the receiver hears, well, nothing much you can do about it by shouting it louder.

This isn’t any different than the spirit that grows up in military units — there’s me, my team, my squad, my platoon and my company. Everybody else is the damn enemy until proven otherwise.

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5 Comments for “Billy Yank and Johnny Reb Part II”

  1. No hard feelings, Michael. It’s kinda like family Family members can rip ‘em all they want but God forbid anybody else does.

    It’s true, the South has its share of unenlightened souls, but not all are rubes as they are sickeningly, systematically portrayed in “reality” shows and other Programming on the propaganda box. One should not be too damning of the dumbed-down masses. After all, the CMM & “education” system they are subjected to was constructed for just that purpose, and many of us – Southerners & Northerners alike – were dumbed-down before becoming aware of the reality beyond the illusion.

    This country has been divided by the international Xionist scum, but not conquered. All one needs to do is check how much monetary, volunteer support and emergency responders that came from the South after New York was attacked to understand that Southerners still believe in the US of A. Unfortunately many of them just don’t realize – at least not YET – that it’s actually the US of I.

    Buddy, but when they do finally awaken, watch out. The X-men don’t want a pissed-off Johnny Reb, much less a shitcan load of ‘em. And that’s what they’re gonna get. We’re all in this together, no matter how funny y’all talk up there. )

    • There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out of the Chattanooga piece by the way — majority vastly favored a union and the Works Council, they just didn’t want the UAW. Which indicates that I was probably right about how they screwed up the organizing campaign as well as a larger problem — we don’t see the large scale so well as we do the local. The problem of scale continues to bother me, Jake. We don’t get it. There’s a difference between you and me pissing in the creek, and BP dumping 100s of metric tons of pure toxic chemicals in the creek. But, locally they get equated, somehow. I suspect that if the various people who’ve been screwed over every figured out how we’ve been duped by a variety of awful vested interests, a mass of Johnny Rebs, Mid-western farm boys, NYC and Boston cops and construction workers, Rocky Mountain Miners and Pacific NW loggers and fishermen would make their lives pretty miserable. But, that’s probably a dream…Winter is coming.

  2. Well, thanks for adding the additional detail Curmudgeon. Jake, I apologize for confusing Chattanooga with Nashville; occasionally, I write faster than I think while simultaneously thinking faster than I write. I certainly don’t consider the south backward, dirty or unenlightened, by the way. It’s different than the North or the West or the East or Alaska. But, we don’t make an effort to understand it…except by talking louder and using smaller words. My point is that cultural history is part of our decision making process today, and we react based on how events appear against the mirror and through the filter of cultural history. And, the north has a lousy record of communicating and responding to a lot of Southern concerns. I’m thinking and writing a lot on the issue of fracture in the US. I think we’re devolving, and maybe a Federation based on regional republics would work better…

    As for the issue of what bridge it was, Rosanne’s husband took her picture on the Bobby Gentry Bridge from behind that is used on the cover. The picture of the woman walking across the bridge is intentionally Bobby Gentry.

  3. This backward, dirty, unenlightened son of Dixie would like to inform the Northerner(s) who wish to save us from ourselves that the VW plant is in Chattanooga, not Nashville. And just maybe those unenlightened Tennesseans are just enlightened enough to see what happened in UAW towns like Detroit and Gary, Indiana.

    • The UAW towns like Detroit and Gary were abandoned by the Big 3.
      The Germans could care less if their workforce is unionized. Many German companies have worker (union) representatives on their boards. Interestingly, this is a holdover from those “evil Nazis” and fascists like Franco. The long term thinking is in building/making a quality product, which will sell itself and sell itself again, not screwing the worker. Worker education and training are 5 to 6 times greater than North American norms, and the average industrial wage is higher.

      For an example of the short term “Anglo-American” short term thinking, research the late 80s dilemma faced by Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar, and how their “Wall Streets” reacted. Where Jaguar, or for that matter, the entire British auto industry, is today is indicative of how not to run a business.

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