UAW Playing the Long Game, Ready for the Short Game at VW in Chattanooga

by Wade Rathke

workscouncilChairman of Volkswagen announced in Germany with the Tennessee Governor and US Senator Bob Coker from Tennessee hanging on every word, that the company will add 2000 workers, spend $600 million adding a new SUV line at the Chattanooga plant, and collect $166 million from the State of Tennessee in tax and other subsidies as well as $12 million in lagniappe to throw at job training for the new workers. On this score everyone can agree, but after that confusion reigns.

Senator Coker, speaking for the red-meat, union haters in the local and statewide business community, when asked for his reaction to both the plant expansion and news recently that the UAW had opened an office, chartered a local, and was hunkering down in its ongoing effort to unionize the plant, snarled through an office statement, “Any union can rent space in any city and open an office.” Well, that’s good to know, Senator? The Governor seemed more rooted in the emerging reality and praised the workers and the fact that the VW decision was a vote of confidence in them.

On the other hand from the UAW’s statements we are all getting closer and closer to a look at the real deal, which continues to closely hew to what I have predicted here.

Gary Casteel, the U.A.W.’s secretary-treasurer, said the union had reached a “consensus” with VW: Once the new local signed up “a meaningful portion” of the plant’s work force, “we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local…The fact that the new line is being announced four days after the rollout of U.A.W. Local 42 in Chattanooga reinforces the consensus that the U.A.W. has reached with the company.”

Now, Coker and his gang are never going to be happy until they start taking deep breaths, hope some of their mad dogs learn to live and let live, and go on with their lives, because Casteel’s statement is both clear and very interesting: the UAW is there to stay in Chattanooga, and that’s fine with VW, so get over it.

The UAW is opting to play both the long and short game in my view.

In the short game they will have a local, office, and organizers. The new 2000 workers won’t be added until the line is ready in 2016. If they have the majority to win an election, and they file before 2016 and win, then, bam, those 2000 are automatically accreted into the union. If they were committed to playing an NLRB strategy, any organizing department would try to get it done before the uncertainty of 2000 new workers is added to the mix, since those 2000 will be walking on eggs, glad to have a job, and not ripe for an election until possibly 2018.

The long game that the UAW’s Casteel is also embracing is exciting for labor in the USA. He is flatly saying that VW is willing to recognize them as a “minority union” on a “members’ only” basis, which is common in the public sector in non-collective bargaining states, and common elsewhere in the world, for example in the United Kingdom where a minority expression of interest wins consultation rights with the companies for your members.
Add the German-based features of a “works council” and the UAW with VW’s active consent and support, can legitimize the union on the shop floor, represent its members thoroughly and aggressively, and win the hearts and minds of the workers one way or another, while signing up their members, collecting dues, and being able to negotiate directly with the company.

The only thing missing will be a collective bargaining agreement, and for what it’s worth, Senator Coker can hang his hat there, because except for a piece of paper somewhere saying “exclusive,” the Chattanooga plant will de facto be a 100% union anyway you look at it.

If we can go cold turkey about our obsession with a contract, and embrace membership, representation, and negotiation instead, there are lots of deals to be made and millions of workers who will rush into unions. This could be the start of something big for unions everywhere in the USA!

Wade Rathke  founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). He served as ACORN’s chief  organizer for thirty years. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists.  He blogs here, where this post originally appeared.

2 Responses

  1. I agree with Wade that forming a minority local union was the best step available for the UAW in Chattanooga, and that experimenting with features of the German works council system makes sense in this context. For these steps to lead to a viable and enduring workers’ association at VW the external UAW organizers have to be willing to step back far enough to allow the Chattanooga workers to take ownership of the campaign. There are some indications in Alexandra Bradbury’s balanced account in Labor Notes that this may not yet be happening.

  2. […] A Talking Union blog that assesses the recent UAW moves in Chattanooga as full of finesse and possibility, whatever the howls of the ‘red-meat union-haters’ in Tennessee and elsewhere: “If we can go cold turkey about our obsession with a contract, and embrace membership, representation, and negotiation instead, there are lots of deals to be made and millions of workers who will rush into unions. This could be the start of something big for unions everywhere in the USA!” […]

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