Volkswagen’s Chattanooga employees face an important choice this week as they vote June 12-14 whether to accede to the United Auto Workers (UAW) union’s unrelenting campaign to insert itself at the company’s assembly plant there.
It is no secret that the UAW has sought desperately to reverse a massive decline in membership, and organizing foreign-owned auto plants in the South is integral to that effort. Forty years ago, in 1979, the UAW boasted over one million members, and as recently as 2001, the UAW had over 700,000 members. Its most recent membership report for 2018 shows that it has fallen to under 400,000. Over the same seventeen years, its revenue has shrunk by over 20 percent, which further highlights the union’s need for new dues-paying members.
Should this trend continue, the UAW faces a grim future, and its leaders know it. Indeed, a past UAW president reportedly observed in 2011 that unless the union can organize large transnational companies like Volkswagen, “I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW — I really don’t.”
While it has hemorrhaged members, the UAW has targeted workers in any number of industries unrelated to auto manufacturing, but workers in the southern plants that actually make cars and trucks remain largely union-free. One significant reason for that fact is that many car manufacturers, particularly foreign-owned ones like Volkswagen, have located their production facilities in right-to-work states like Tennessee.
The UAW’s elusive goal of organizing one or more southern auto plants became an obvious priority several years ago and has remained so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Volkswagen appeared to be the most promising prospect, given that its management seemed interested in starting a “works council” in Chattanooga, as it has in all of its plants worldwide. The problem with the works council idea, however, was that it does not jibe with American labor law, though the UAW obfuscated that fact. Despite the chatter about a works council, VW employees in 2014 rejected the union by a vote of 712-626 (53% vs. 47%).
After losing, the union initially decided to create a new local that would represent just those workers who had voted to unionize. However, that arrangement similarly lacked the legal right to formally negotiate with the company.
Then in late 2015, it decided to take advantage of a dubious decision from the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board, which radically changed the standard for what constitutes an appropriate bargaining unit. That decision allowed the UAW to target a small subset of just 160 maintenance workers and seek a formal election among just those employees, presumably with the ultimate goal of seeking another plant-wide vote sometime in the future. That time has now arrived, but one hopes that if the UAW loses again they will take “no” for an answer.