Workers at L.A.-area electric bus factory vote to unionize: Thoughts on building union power in manufacturing

As detailed in a story from earlier this week published in the Los Angeles Times, on November 12, workers at a small electric bus plant owned by the company Proterra in the Los Angeles area voted to unionize through United Steel Workers Local 675.

Notably, the union drive and vote at the Proterra plant, which is located in the City of Industry, was carried out with the sanction of the company and its CEO. This fact is prominently featured in the Times story – the online version of which is headlined , “Unionizing L.A. bus workers and their CEO come together over fighting climate change.” According to the piece, the company invited Local 675 organizers to make a pitch to workers at the plant encouraging unionization late last month. Two weeks later, workers overwhelming voted for union representation.

At the Proterra electric bus plant in Greenville, South Carolina.

The company’s motivation in allowing workers to organize without interference is that it plans to use the fact that its L.A.-based production workforce is unionized as a selling point in order to secure sales contracts from Blue State bourgeois Democratic Party officials – who, of course, have a vested interest in posing as “friends of labor.” This includes in Los Angeles itself, where at least two public transportation agencies have already purchased buses from Proterra. As noted in the Times story, for Proterra, “Being known as a union-friendly shop could be an edge when it comes to competing for public transit agency contracts. Those clients, which include the L.A. Transportation Department and Foothills Transit, have bought a total of 700 buses from the company […].”

The agreement between Proterra and USW Local 675 was brokered by a Democratic Party-aligned non-profit — Jobs to Move America — which was co-founded by the former executive director of the labor-backed non-profit LAANE.

In any event, as a result of the vote, the 61 production workers at the City of Industry plant are now organized through the USW.

With this said, it’s important to point out that Proterra’s City of Industry plant is not the company’s primary production facility. Crucially, Proterra also operates a much larger factory located in Greenville, South Carolina. As of 2018, Proterra’s South Carolina plant employed around 250 employees – a large majority of whom are likely production workers – according to a story from the Greenville News. The Proterra South Carolina plant is located just a 15-minute drive away from BMW’s massive auto plant in nearby Greer. According to a recent story in the Post and Courier, the Greer BMW plant employs some 11,000 workers, produces 1,500 cars a day, and is the company’s largest factory in the world.

It goes without saying that Proterra is not likely to voluntarily recognize a union at its flagship plant in South Carolina. While the company might have a stake in acting friendly to unions in Los Angeles – in South Carolina, the company (not to mention the state’s entire bourgeoisie) would, in all likelihood, greet any sort of union organizing effort with a campaign of severe anti-union repression and intimidation. It would take a massive struggle to organize the South Carolina Proterra plant, or any other factory in Greenville, which, as of 2018, had a union membership density of just 1.3 percent.

In short, my point here, I suppose, is that it’s going to take class struggle in order to build real union power in the manufacturing sector, including at Proterra itself, and elsewhere.

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