Billy Yank and Johnny Reb Part II
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.
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
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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Posted by Michael Farrell on Feb 16 2014, With 0 Reads, Filed under Business, Civil War, Of Interest. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.