In the classic Kentucky novel The Dollmaker, a tenant farm family leaves a hard life in the hills for a no less difficult existence in the roaring factories of Detroit. Many real-life Kentuckians followed the same Hillbilly Highway north to work automobile and other industrial jobs, and achieved a good standard of living only after fighting for and winning a union.
Over the following decades, the center of gravity for auto manufacturing shifted to the South and to Kentucky itself, which is now the nation’s top producer of cars, light trucks and SUVs per capita. And again, it’s unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) – which is threatening to strike when its contract expires this week – that are determining whether these jobs mean better lives.
Like with the UPS-Teamsters negotiations, Louisville is central to the current drama as the home of 13,000 members of UAW Local 862 and workers at two Ford factories: the Kentucky Truck Plant and the Louisville Assembly Plant. Add in the General Motors Corvette Plant in Bowling Green, and Kentucky is a major hub of UAW membership.
But the state also became a pivot point for the future of unions and the auto industry when Toyota’s first North American plant located here in 1986. That factory and its suppliers have been non-union ever since, and set off a further southernization of the auto industry that is accelerating rapidly with the shift into electric vehicle (EV) production.
The future of unions at these EV facilities is one of the key issues at stake in the negotiations between UAW and the Big Three car manufacturers. New federal clean energy investments are spurring projects like the Ford-Blue Oval SK battery plants in Glendale, Kentucky, but it’s an open question whether the company will stay neutral on unionization of these 5,000 jobs or try to beat a labor drive back.
In the negotiations, the UAW is also pushing for significant wage increases given record corporate profits and years of worker sacrifices, a 32-hour workweek, and an end to tiers that have meant newer workers make far less in pay and retirement benefits than those hired earlier.
Significant victories in the contract could set a higher standard that makes unionization easier. In recent years, southern power brokers have fought hard to prevent that, winning victories even at companies like Volkswagen and BMW that operate union shops in other countries. Tennessee Volkswagen workers barely lost two union elections only after the direct intervention of politicians and massive fear-based advertising campaigns.
But a friendlier National Labor Relations Board and pro-labor federal policies are shifting the playing field. Recently 1,400 workers at Blue Bird in Georgia, a manufacturer of electric school buses heavily subsidized by new federal laws, voted to unionize in a state where only 3% of workers belong to a labor union.
And an even bigger factor is the ambition of newly-elected leadership at the UAW. President Shawn Fain has united the membership behind a 97% strike authorization vote and is bargaining hard for a fair deal. His fierce style hearkens back to the famous UAW sit-down strikes during the Great Depression, most notably in Flint, Michigan.
Clovis Nevels, the Kentucky migrant worker in The Dollmaker, ends up joining a Detroit union organizing effort at great personal risk. Now, a new generation of factory workers will determine whether better jobs are possible right here in Kentucky and beyond.
This column appeared in the Courier-Journal on Sept. 13.