Workers at Volkswagen’s (VW) Chattanooga assembly plant dealt another blow to the United Auto Workers (UAW) last week in a representation election that observers of labor policy were watching closely. In a vote of 833 to 776, VW employees on June 14 rejected the UAW’s prolonged effort to organize the plant, handing the union a stinging defeat and an uncertain future.
As this blog has noted previously, the UAW has had its eye on organizing VW’s Chattanooga plant for several years. Like other foreign auto manufacturers, VW chose to locate its facility in Tennessee, which is a right-to-work state, at least in part because organized labor is not as prevalent in the American south. Despite that fact, UAW leaders seemed to believe that VW’s practice of allowing so-called “works councils” in all of its plants worldwide upped the likelihood that the union might be able to secure a win at VW.
However, despite any perceived advantages of targeting that company, when it came down to a vote in 2014 the VW employees rebuffed the UAW in a vote of 712 to 626 against organizing. Following that rebuke, the UAW set about trying to represent employees at the plant anyway.
First, in July 2014, the UAW announced the creation of a “members only” local that VW employees could join voluntarily, although the local did not have a bargaining relationship with VW. Following that, employees opposed to the UAW’s presence at the Chattanooga plant formed an alternative organization called the American Council of Employees (ACE), which similarly did not have a bargaining relationship with VW management.
For its part, VW adopted a “Community Organization Engagement” policy that would allow groups representing VW employees to have increasing levels of access privileges after meeting membership thresholds of 15, 30, and 45 percent of the plant’s roughly 1,500 eligible employees, as verified by an independent auditor.
In late 2015, the UAW decided to form a micro-union of 160 maintenance workers and seek a formal election among just those employees, which it was able to do because of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) dubious Specialty Healthcare precedent. Unconvinced about the legitimacy of the micro-union, VW steadfastly refused to bargain with it and challenged it in court.
Leading up to the most recent vote, the UAW chose to jettison the micro-union, which had filed unfair labor practice charges against VW for refusing to bargain, as the current NLRB reconsidered whether it was appropriate. Doing that allowed the union to go for the real prize, a plant-wide bargaining unit.
Now that the votes have been counted with the UAW on the losing side, it is precluded from organizing the Chattanooga plant for a year. If history is any guide, the union will refuse to take “no” for an answer, and the saga of the UAW’s crusade to unionize VW will drag on. At the same, the sting from this latest defeat must be pretty intense.