Everyone seemed to agree on at least one thing at Thursday night’s town hall meeting on Volkswagen unionization—the workers should get a secret ballot vote on the issue.
Pay was referenced several times during Thursday night's event.
The UAW represents some workers in Spring Hill, Tenn.
According to the UAW contract, after four years, union employees at General Motors in Spring Hill make $19.28 an hour.
The General Motors union contract expires in 2015, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.
At Volkswagen, production team members now start at $15 an hour and move to $16 in six months. The pay increases up to $21 per hour after five years.
Employees are earning $20 at the three-year mark now.
In related news, leaders with GM recently announced the addition of two vehicles, according to The Tennessean.
The Berry Auditorium at Chattanooga State Community College was standing-room only for the event, which local television station NewsChannel 9 organized.
Although most seemed to agree that Volkswagen employees should get to express their opinion in an election, there were several tense moments of disagreement during the event.
Sometimes audience members shouted out at panelists. Sometimes they booed. Other times they cheered in support.
The panelists of the event included Chris Brooks with Chattanooga Organized for Action; Gary Watkins with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Matt Patterson, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Charles Van Eaton, who has taught at Bryan College and Pepperdine University.
Brooks said that there were no Volkswagen employees as panelists because they didn’t have union protection and risked getting fired for what they said.
But some employees did ask questions and make statements during the event.
VW employee Mike Jarvis asked the panel if they could explain how his benefit package or pay would change if he had union representation. He asked how much he’d have to pay a union.
He said—as several other VW employees have said—that there was an open-door policy with management at the company.
“Right now, if I have a problem, I can go straight to the CEO and tell him I’m not happy, and I’m not getting fired because I’ve done it,” Jarvis said. “I’m extremely happy with my benefits ... I feel like I died and went to heaven.”
Watkins responded to that and said it’s possible that not everyone enjoys that level of comfort and interaction with management.
And Brooks said that workers only have as much power as they can collectively bargain for.
Despite the fact that most people seemed to agree that a secret vote is the way to go, another employee brought the UAW card he signed. He said that he voted “yes” when he signed the card.
But, there may be some confusion about who signed cards and what each card said. Event moderator Mark Hymen showed two different cards that he said workers have given to NewsChannel 9. The information on the cards had different wording about supporting the UAW, and some workers have said that they were under the impression they were signing the cards to get more information—not to vote in support of the UAW.
Eight VW employees filed charges last month alleging improprieties in the UAW union hierarchy’s “card check” process.
That complaint alleges that UAW representatives got workers to sign union authorization cards by coercion and misrepresentation and used union cards signed too long ago to be legally valid. Click here for the original story.
UAW leaders have denied those charges, according to archives.
Earlier this week, four local Volkswagen employees filed federal charges against the company, alleging that statements by German officials are illegally coercing fellow workers into representation by the United Auto Workers union.
Brooks said his stance is “pro-worker.”
When the moderator asked for audience reaction about who was for unions and who was opposed, there seemed to be more clapping for the “pro-union” stance.
Watkins, who noted that autonomy between local unions is a good thing, also said that his bottom line is that the union he’s involved in has been good for him. He said he’s not trying to influence the workers’ decisions about whether to unionize.
Patterson pointed out that while the decision belongs to the workers, the issue impacts everyone.
He and Van Eaton spoke about the potential downsides of unionization.
An audience member pointed out that employers don’t always have workers’ best interest in mind.
Van Eaton later said that unions are not all benevolent.
More to the discussion?
Much of Thursday night’s discussion revolved around traditional ideas of unions in America.
But the Volkswagen unionization issue is atypical.
Some leaders have said 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.
Some VW leaders in Germany want the local plant to be a part of their works council system. Chattanooga currently the only plant out of about 100 around the world that operates outside that system.
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.
Reuters also reported recently that VW AG Works Council Chairman Bernd Osterloh said the UAW has agreed to give some of its rights to a works council. Read more here.
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.
And Bill Visnic, senior analyst with online automotive shopping and research outlet Edmunds.com, recently 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.
Osterloh said it would be better for Chattanooga to have a works council, but the National Labor Relations Act forbids companies to have an internal union, so organizing the local plant can’t be done exactly like the German model.
Under United States law, a third party is needed, so that’s where the UAW comes in.
Some people, such as local business leaders, have said that they are in favor of third-party representation, but not from the UAW.
Sign up for our email list to get your morning news delivered directly to your inbox. All we need is your email address.