The United Auto Workers is a union that likes a good fight. But even its leaders recognize a lost cause – for now. This morning the union withdrew its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board challenging a secret ballot election held in mid-February that would have enabled it to represent workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga. Despite having committed VW management to silence via neutrality agreement, the UAW lost by 712 to 626. The union immediately claimed the results were invalid as a result of undue interference by anti-union Tennessee public officials. On February 21, the UAW filed a request with the NLRB to overturn the vote. Yet today it dropped its suit. “The UAW is ready to put February’s tainted election in the rear-view mirror,” said President Bob King (in photo). Or is it? His language suggests his union wants to buy some extra time.
Union Corruption Update since last October has chronicled the high-octane campaign by the United Auto Workers to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, a city of about 170,000 in southeast Tennessee. The plant opened three years ago and has been thriving since. More than 250,000 Passat sedans have rolled off its main assembly line. The success has prompted management back in Wolfsburg, Germany to draw up plans to expand the facility. Many workers had expressed high levels of satisfaction with the quality of pay, working conditions and management-worker relations. The UAW, by contrast, would not be satisfied until they achieved representation among the plant’s employees. And the union knew this would be an uphill climb.
At the dawn of the Eighties, UAW membership was about 1.5 million workers; last year the figure was 380,000. The decline in members has mirrored the decline of the domestic auto industry, the latter very much a product of unsustainable wage and benefit commitments written into union contracts. The federal bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler five years ago to the combined tune of at least $60 billion represented the end result of this process. Prodded by the Obama administration, the automakers surrendered large equity stakes to the UAW. Under separate agreements, the union would own 17.5 percent of GM and 55 percent of Chrysler. The UAW realized, however, that the key to reversing institutional decline lay in organizing foreign-owned nonunion assembly plants, for years the main source of auto industry employment growth in this country. And those plants are in Right to Work southern states, where unions lack the authority to force private-sector employers to terminate non-joining employees. Twice before, the UAW had tried to win representation of the Nissan assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., near Nashville. Both times it lost. The Chattanooga plant, the union believed, provided a unique opportunity for a win because VW management was likely to be on its side.
Volkswagen, besides being the world’s third-largest automaker, is an embodiment of the workplace culture of contemporary German industry. This culture, known as ‘co-determination,’ emphasizes cooperative rather than adversarial labor-management-relations. And it finds expression in the many ‘works councils’ at large-scale sites throughout Germany. Through these councils, blue-collar and white-collar workers alike have the opportunity to discuss workplace issues with management on a face-to-face basis at scheduled intervals. This system isn’t unionism. Yet unions often wind up serving as the voice of workers anyway. The powerful German metal and auto workers union, IG Metall, along with works council representatives, form a powerful presence on the VW board of directors. Volkswagen management firmly believes in the works council concept. Indeed, it has instituted a council at every one of its plants in the world, save for those in China – and the one in Chattanooga.
Management wants a works council in Chattanooga, with or without the UAW. The United Auto Workers, for its part, doesn’t mind the idea of a works council. But it is adamant about representing the workers on a council. President King and other UAW leaders have emphasized from the start that any council operating without union representation would constitute a “company union,” which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Company unions, organized labor officials long have argued, aren’t real unions but employer front groups. Volkswagen management, in its eagerness to create a council, has proven willing to allow the UAW to dictate the terms of creation. Union organizers already were out in the field, soliciting pledge card signatures from employees indicating their desire to join. In their haste, organizers very likely used deception and coercion in attempting to obtain signatures. Indeed, eight Chattanooga workers viewed these tactics as so heavy-handed that last September they filed a complaint over them with the National Labor Relations Board. The union, meanwhile, claimed it had collected far more than enough cards than needed to be accepted by Volkswagen management as the bargaining agent, although the UAW did not show any evidence as much.
Volkswagen management, though not overtly pro-UAW, was more than willing to cut a deal with the union. On January 27, with the results of the card check up in the air, the company signed a neutrality agreement with the UAW. This formally committed the company to non-interference with the organizing campaign. VW management would be prevented from conveying to workers at the Chattanooga plant any potential downsides to unionizing.
Tennessee officials, unlike VW, however, were not under any agreement to remain silent. And some did speak out against unionization. They included Governor Bill Haslam, State Senator Bo Watson and, most of all, U.S. Senator Bob Corker, who as mayor of Chattanooga a decade ago had proven instrumental in persuading VW to locate the plant in the city. None of these and other opponents sought to thwart the formation of an onsite works council. They simply felt formal collective bargaining was not the best way to represent workers on the council. Whether or not workers at the plant were influenced by them was a separate issue; the fact remained that some rather mild comments by various political officials were not out of bounds. Moreover, the union, by its own definition, really did “interfere” with the election campaign. They sent various officials from Detroit headquarters down to Chattanooga to persuade employees to join. The UAW didn’t seem to object either to German sister union IG Metall’s open advocacy of representation. Nor did it object to open support from President Obama or from Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
The comments by Corker and other union opponents might have been a moot issue had the United Auto Workers won the representation election, which was held during February 12-14. But the union lost. Late on Friday, February 14, the plant management announced the outcome: 712 to 626 against unionization. President Bob King, not liking this Valentine’s Day gift at all, remarked: “I think it was unprecedented that outside forces, whether it was the Koch brothers and the money they spent here, whether it was Senator Corker, whether it was Grover Norquist, all these people who were going to come in and threaten the company and threaten workers, to me [this] was outrageous.” The UAW had seven days to lodge a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to contest the election. On February 21, with only hours remaining before the deadline, the union filed a challenge to the election results. If successful, the NLRB could order a new vote. The board scheduled a hearing for Monday, April 21.
When the big day (i.e., today) came, the union dropped its challenge. According to its official statement, the UAW decided that a legal battle could have dragged on for years. Even if the NLRB had ordered a new election, said the union, that would not have stopped anti-union politicians and shadowy outside organizations from interfering once more. Yet Sen. Corker counters that the real reason for dropping the vote was that the union sensed it couldn’t win a new vote. Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, believes as much. “Most people thought they (the union) would win the first time around,” he said. “I think the chances of winning a second vote will be more difficult than winning the first vote.” A union victory might be a mixed blessing at best. If the NLRB could prevent union opponents from making comments during an organizing campaign, Chaison says, it can rule to restrict expression from supporters as well.
There is another, highly plausible reason why the United Auto Workers dropped its complaint: A sizable number of workers at the Chattanooga plant were ready to testify before the National Labor Relations Board that the election results were fair, and that UAW organizers used intimidation and deception to persuade workers to sign union pledge cards. Only five days ago, on April 16, the NLRB rejected a union request to exclude plant employees from making comments at the hearing defending the election result. The decision upheld an earlier ruling by the NLRB acting regional director in Atlanta. Mark Mix, president of the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which offered legal assistance to the workers, explained things this way: “The decision over whether or not to unionize is supposed to lie with the workers, which makes the attempt by the UAW to shut them out of this process all the more shameful…The real question here is: Why are UAW officials so afraid of workers and their National Right to Work Foundation-provided attorneys being part of this process?”
That the UAW has dropped its appeal with the NLRB, however, doesn’t mean it is dropping its campaign. It just means it seeks a more cost-efficient and less visible campaign. “There are still options other than elections and card checks, and we can prove we had a majority of workers favoring UAW representation before the election,” said UAW Southeast Regional Director Gary Casteel. Matt Patterson, executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform, which opposes the UAW drive, believes the union is planning to make another deal with Volkswagen management, especially since the company is under heavy pressure to do so from IG Metall. He remarked today: “The union has spent way too much money for this to be over. Volkswagen is considering at the very highest levels just recognizing the union anyway.” VW does not have to recognize the union as a collective bargaining agent. Yet it may choose to do so anyway if the union can prove it legitimately acquired signatures of more than half of all potentially affected workers.
The union is indicating that it may seek a congressional investigation. It believes that Tennessee officials behaved illegally by threatening to withhold an additional $300 million in state tax breaks for a plant expansion if the UAW had won the election. But this view is based on the erroneous notion that VW, which already had received $577 million in combined federal, state and local financial incentives to build and start up the plant, is entitled to assistance. Reality check: There is no “right” for a company to receive tax abatements, infrastructure improvements or any other form of public aid. The State of Tennessee isn’t suppressing the United Auto Workers’ right to organize simply by telling Volkswagen that it should rely on its own deep pockets if it courts the union. The union doesn’t see things this way. This is why even without NLRB intervention, this battle may last many months and even several years.