I just returned from another trip to Tennessee where I was able to catch up with a few folks from the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and see how things were developing. The conversations there had shifted quite a bit from earlier in the year when the vote regarding UAW unionization was raging, and recent reports make it clear that the big auto union isn’t going to be content with licking their wounds from their recent loss. As Ed reported back in April, the UAW had withdrawn their request for a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board, which some saw as a sign that the fight was pretty much over.
But from what I was hearing, union organizers weren’t looking at things that way at all. There was talk of going ahead and forming an “informal” bargaining unit anyway. And now it looks like they are making it officially unofficial.
Five months after the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in its bid to unionize Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., manufacturing plant, the union is giving it another go. But this time, they’re not bothering with the traditional election route.
Instead of calling on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer an election, the UAW has decided to form a voluntary association called Local 42. At least initially, the group will not collectively bargain on behalf of the plant’s whole workforce, and it will not collect dues. Yet if a majority of the plant’s employees agree to join Local 42, there is a chance that Volkswagen will recognize it as the workers’ exclusive bargaining agent, granting it full union privileges without the need for an election.
“We’ve had ongoing discussions with Volkswagen and have arrived at a consensus with the company,” said UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel in a statement. “Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local.”
The phrase “Local 42” sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie where the aliens move into a local landfill, but the opinion of the UAW secretary-treasurer may be a bit on the overly optimistic side. For their part, VW simply stated that they ”have no contract or other formal agreement with UAW on this matter.” There is also no formal definition of what the UAW means when they say “a meaningful portion” of the workers there. But some of the workers, speaking to the local paper, were a bit more clear.
Mike Burton, a VW worker who opposes the union, said the UAW is wasting its time and money again.
“It’s like buying a car and leaving it at a dealership for a couple of years until you’re able to drive it,” he said, calling the UAW’s action grandstanding and “a show.”…
Mark Cunningham, of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, said the UAW will “no doubt use this camel’s nose under the tent to pressure members to join its ranks.”
“All this comes despite workers having clearly rejected the union at the ballot box in a legally binding election,” he said.
I didn’t get to speak with the VW management directly this month, but it’s not inconceivable that they might strike up some sort of agreement for talks with the new, unofficial organization. All along, VW has taken an attitude of just wanting to get some sort of “works council” in place, such as the ones established in Europe. They have no interest in having a union become an anchor around their necks and drive them into financial ruin, but they do want to establish a mechanism where workers can communicate directly with management, being able to voice concerns – particularly about worker safety and operating conditions – and provide feedback on ways to improve their processes. Of course, if they officially get in bed with the UAW, they’ll probably wind up getting a lot more than they bargained for.