United Auto Workers organizer Gary Casteel says Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., workers want to form a union. But he’s not particularly interested in letting them put that up to a vote.
“We've determined we definitely have a majority of employees who favor this representation,” Casteel told the Tennessean last month. “But we are not seeking a vote necessarily.”
Why not, if that is what the workers want?
“We know if we go for a traditional election where the outside organizations could campaign against us, we’d probably lose,” Casteel said.
In other words, it actually isn’t clear that a majority of the workers want a union.
If the plant does unionize, it will be more because Volkwagen's management wants it, not the workers. A unique set of circumstances has given the German-based company an incentive to unionize the plant -- and Big Labor hopes that it has found a winning strategy in the union-averse South.
All that stands in the way for both are the workers themselves.
Some workers have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging the company is colluding with the UAW to coerce them into joining.
Charges of fraud against UAW’s organizing tactics have also been filed.
"When I was approached to sign a [union] card a year and a half ago, it was, 'Oh, the card just means you want more information,' " worker Carol Wilson said in September.
"Yes, I signed a card. But yes, I got it revoked when I found out it was counted as a vote,” she said.
An anti-union website claims to have gotten 611 plant workers so far to sign a petition calling for a secret ballot election — about a quarter of the workforce. VW hasn’t said yet if it will call an election.
Though Michigan is more associated the auto industry, Tennessee is also a major hub. In addition to VW, Nissan and Toyota also have facilities in the state.
Unlike Michigan, the state has few unions — it has been right-to-work since 1947. Workers cannot legally be compelled to join or support a union. That is partly why foreign companies locate there.
So then why does VW want a union now? In short, because the UAW has found a way to make globalization work to its advantage: It has been able to get help from its German counterparts.
European law gives union leaders as many as half the seats on corporate “supervisory boards.” VW’s German union, IG Metall, has effective veto power over many major company decisions, including expanding production.
IG Metall is now refusing to OK any expansion of the Chattanooga plant until those workers get some labor representation.
One possibility is a European-style “worker council,” an entity that acts like a union but wouldn’t require workers to be members.
There is a snag, though: U.S. labor law does not allow a worker council if the company isn’t also unionized.
Otherwise, the council would be considered a company-sponsored union and therefore illegal due to the inherent conflict of interest.
Enter UAW, which could legally represent the workers. If they can get the VW plant organized, there’s little doubt they’ll get their European counterparts to lean on other businesses with U.S. facilities in the same way.
But can UAW can get the Chattanooga workers onboard? It claims to have gotten a majority to sign cards affirming they want representation.
UAW wants VW to accept this “card check” as proof and forego a federally monitored secret ballot election. (Under labor law, it is management, not the workers, that decides whether to call for a vote.)
A card check election may also be prohibited under a new, but untested, state law. Big Labor remains optimistic.
“I don’t want to speculate on a timeline,” UAW’s Casteel said. “I think those workers are very close to achieving the recognition they want.”
Whether they’ll vote for it is another matter.