Last week, leaders of the United Auto Workers Union made an announcement that—depending on whom you ask—is a big step toward either a historic victory or economic disaster.
UAW officials asserted that they have support for a union from the majority of local Volkswagen workers, and that claim has created a long list of questions.
Don Jackson, former president of manufacturing for Volkswagen Chattanooga, questioned whether UAW leaders actually have the signatures they claim to.
Bill Visnic, senior analyst with online automotive shopping and research outlet Edmunds.com, questioned whether local VW employees would be card-carrying members of the UAW under the proposed German-style works council, which has never been done in the United States before.
"I really doubt that [the structure] will actually encompass collective bargaining."
—Bill Visnic, senior analyst with online automotive shopping and research outlet Edmunds.com
"We said this before. We had a concern about what it would do to our recruiting capabilities. What has pushed us to speak up more loudly this week was the concept that they already had achieved the majority of workers."
—Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President Ron Harr
"If this happens, this is a big victory for the UAW."
—Chattanooga attorney Maury Nicely, who specializes in labor and employment
Sen. Bob Corker said he wondered why leaders with Volkswagen AG have been meeting with UAW officials when they told him years ago they had no interest in doing so.
And an hourly Volkswagen employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned what the UAW can do for workers, who already have an open-door policy with management, he said.
Now, the attention is on Volkswagen leaders. For all intents and purposes, it’s their move.
And they have three basic options.
Volkswagen leaders can challenge the validity of the cards, they can acknowledge the cards and move to have a secret ballot election on the issue, or they can voluntarily recognize the cards and accept the union, said Chattanooga attorney Maury Nicely, who specializes in labor and employment.
So far, local Volkswagen leadership has "no comment" about which option they will choose.
But UAW President Bob King said on Friday he is confident that Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant will be unionized, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The three options for Volkswagen are based on the rules outlined in the National Labor Relations Act.
But the Volkswagen unionization issue is atypical.
And it might be the chance to create an entirely new system—one that’s not in the vein of the UAW’s traditionally adversarial relationship with company leaders, one that’s a hybrid of German and American labor practices, Visnic said.
But many people said they think it’s unlikely that UAW leaders will change their style of doing business.
And the details of how a hybrid system would work are unclear.
UAW membership has been on the decline, and it would be a big victory if the union made it into a Southern plant. They need new members to survive.
And Volkswagen AG leaders want Chattanooga’s plant to be a part of its works council system. It’s currently the only plant out of about 100 around the world that operates outside that system.
Because the National Labor Relations Act forbids companies to have an internal union, organizing the local plant can’t be done exactly like the German model.
"The push here really is probably coming from the Volkswagen side because they want to get uniformity," Visnic said of the corporate leaders. "They want to get Chattanooga in line with the way it’s done everywhere else."
Volkswagen AG leaders want a works council because it would allow them to stay in touch with ideas and thoughts from Chattanooga workers and come to future deals about working conditions, Horst Neumann, VW's board member for human resources, said, according to Automotive News.
Local leaders are thinking about how unionization would impact the city and state. But Volkswagen AG leaders are likely thinking more about how the Chattanooga plant fits into their global plan.
Jackson said local officials should have more input about the decision.
"There are 100 plants around the world—if it was a local discussion, it would be happening in a local manner," Jackson said.
It’s unclear how a German-style labor system would work here. And because this is uncharted territory, the controversial and divisive issue has become convoluted.
Visnic said he can’t imagine that Volkswagen leaders will agree to collective bargaining, but—for some people—any relationship with the UAW equals disaster.
Click here to read what Corker and Ron Harr, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said about VW leaders working with UAW officials.
UAW leaders couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Wall Street Journal reported that if Volkswagen leaders decide not to recognize the cards, union leaders could still seek to get certification from the National Labor Relations Board because King said they have collected signed cards from more than half of the plant’s production team.
But it’s unclear exactly what the UAW cards said, and some people said the cards may not be valid.
It's possible that some of the cards were signed by temporary employees or that workers were misled about what they were signing.
"It’s a usual union tactic to say they have the majority of the workers’ cards," Jackson said.
He also said he’s heard from workers that some are worried that someone else signed their name on a card.
And some people could have signed the cards after months of pressure from UAW supporters, thinking they would still get a chance to vote in private.
Representatives of a right-to-work foundation said they have been fielding complaints from VW employees who said they were promised a secret vote.
Jackson said a secret ballot is the only way to determine if workers really want the UAW to represent them. In July, UAW leaders said they had a majority of workers at a plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., sign cards in support of a union.
But a majority later rejected the UAW in a secret ballot vote, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Support for unionization, IG Metall
In May, a brochure circulated at Volkswagen in support of the union.
But workers who do support the union have been hesitant to talk publicly.
According to a brochure, some employees want union representation, and leaders of the German union IG Metall encouraged local workers to organize.
In Germany, IG Metall leaders negotiate workers' compensation, and works council officials deal with working conditions at the plant, according to the Chicago Tribune.
These two working parts—IG Metall and the works council—represent another way that the German system is different from U.S. union operations.
The Chicago Tribune also reported that the UAW would play a role similar to that of IG Metall if UAW representation is approved.
But that’s another detail that gets lost in the overall discussion and that UAW and VW leaders haven’t made clear.
The brochure that circulated at the beginning of the summer had messages from Volkswagen employees who support union representation, which could allow for the formation of a local works council and representation on the Volkswagen Group Works Council.
"The best way for us to solve problems in our company and contribute to its success is to have a true voice in the company, and the only way to accomplish this is through forming a strong union in our plant," Eric DeLacy, who works in the VW paint department, wrote in the brochure.
The brochure explained that employees at Volkswagen plants in Germany are represented by IG Metall, which has 2.2 million members in auto, steel, electrical, textile, wood and plastic industries.
"IG Metall's most important task in Germany is to negotiate collective agreements for its members," according to the brochure. "That is why IG Metall has been able to achieve high wages, a 35-hour workweek, six weeks of vacation, and a holiday and Christmas bonuses. Still, with these high standards, Volkswagen and the German automotive industry are highly profitable and successful."
President of IG Metall Berthold Huber said that IG Metall has developed a good relationship with UAW leaders, and he recommends that VW Chattanooga employees decide for the UAW to represent them.
"This would make the contact and cooperation between workforces in the United States and Germany easier and would benefit workers in both countries," he said, according to the brochure.
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