by Paul Garver
The campaign to organize Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga is taking a new and interesting direction.
The UAW has chartered Local 42 as a new local organization representing workers at the VW plant. According to the UAW press release, Local 42 will offer the workers the opportunity for a voice in the workplace similar to the VW works council system for employee representation in Germany. Calling itself “Volkswagen’s works council partner,” the union pledged to continue its advocacy for state incentives to encourage VW to expand production and create jobs at the Chattanooga plant.
Unlike the usual American labor relations system the union will not have the right to exclusive representation, nor will it represent workers other than its own members. However the UAW expects that the company will “recognize” the union once it has signed up a “meaningful” portion of its workforce as an organization that represents its own members. Since the union had dropped its NLRB challenge to the February representation election it had narrowly lost, it could no longer at this time seek formal collective bargaining rights nor the right to exclusive representation of the work force.
In an obviously related development, Volkswagen chairman Martin Winterhorn announced on July 14 that it would locate its new crossover SUV assembly line at the Chattanooga plant, adding some 2000 production jobs and create a research and development center housing about 200 engineers.
How do we analyze these developments?
At the first level, the UAW has been forced to accept a “ second best” solution. It would have preferred to have won the representation election in February and gained formal recognition by the company and the right to collective bargaining.
For VW as a global corporation, it is a “win/win” situation. The company would have accepted a union electoral victory, but now it has a relationship in Chattanooga that is much more like the system of union/works council employee representation prevalent in Germany. The UAW would not have posed much of a challenge in bargaining with VW even if it had won the election, but now the UAW is even more dependent on corporate good will, even if it eventually signs up a majority of workers, and gains more conventional status.
However I see some positive outcomes as well. Sen. Bob Corker and the other rightwing politicians that campaigned against union representation on the basis that it would endanger further investment by VW in Tennessee are exposed as frauds and liars. No small achievement.
Secondly, the Chattanooga auto workers themselves are in a relatively advantageous positions vis-à-vis the UAW. Not only were they not written off and “abandoned” by the national union as they had feared – their mutual cooperation is evidently key to building up union strength and capability. If one of the reasons for the union electoral defeat was that the national union organizers had not adequately listened to the workers and the communities being organized (as was the case), UAW Local 42 now has the opportunity to seek deeper roots in the workplace and community culture over a time period not dictated by an election schedule.
Finally, from my own experience in the international labor movement [I coordinated the large European Works Council for Nestle and participated in global union coordination within Coca Cola on behalf of the IUF] I have observed the potential power of a worker coordination that encompasses global unions, national and local unions and works councils, even though it lacks a global legal framework for international collective bargaining. At the international level, representatives of the Chattanooga VW workers will now have the opportunity to link up with and learn from the experiences of other organized VW workers from Germany and from the other countries in which VW operates. In fact they will now be in a situation much more parallel to unions and works council leaders from other countries, where exclusive union shops and rights to exclusive representation are uncommon.
I do not know whether this new UAW approach to organizing Southern auto plants will ultimately succeed or not. If the “American version of a works council” succeeds at VW, it could carry over at least to plants of the other German owned auto companies BMW and Mercedes Benz. And I do not know whether the resulting UAW locals will be as democratic and autonomous as they could be. But the old methods have not worked.
If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, the UAW is already distributing a flyer at the Mercedes Benz plant near Vance, Alabama, that reads:
“Although we will not initially have the right to bargain contracts with the company, we do have the right to form a local union. One of the goals of our union will be to build to a majority membership and achieve full collective bargaining rights.”
Asserting and enforcing the right to form a union and act like a union whether or not it has majority status and formal collective bargaining rights is key to surmounting the walls that have imprisoned the U.S. labor movement in an iron cage..