A business’ attempt to collaborate with workers may provide an auto union a long-sought foothold in right-to-work Tennessee, which experts suggested could end up hurting employees.
United Auto Worker Region 8 director Gary Casteel claimed that a majority of the 2,500 workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga manufacturing facility had signed card check forms, which would grant the union exclusive representation rights at the facility.
This wasn’t a typical example of a union organizing: It was the company, not the union, that raised the issue of giving workers a voice in the plant’s operations.
VW, a German company, approached the Tennessee manufacturing plant earlier this month, hinting that it would not receive additional investments if it did not establish an European-model works council to represent employee interests.
"When I toured the Chattanooga plant and spoke with workers, I found little evidence of any job dissatisfaction … all anyone could talk about was the number of applicants and how lucky they felt to have such a good job," one auto analyst told the Washington Free Beacon on condition of anonymity.
Works councils provide employees with direct representation to management in worker safety and plant operations. They differ from American unions in one respect, according to Lipscomb University economics professor Richard Grant.
"Works councils are meant to be cooperative to help companies head off problems by addressing employee grievances, they’re not adversarial like the American union model," he said.
VW, which refused to comment for the story, was pressured by IG Metall, its UAW-managed German union, for the work council at the plant, according to an auto industry analyst.
The company could get more than they bargained for, as the UAW has hijacked the process.
While the UAW’s Casteel has touted its presence to media and employees as a "new labor model to the U.S.," many labor and car experts see it as backdoor unionization.
For example, U.S. labor law prohibits employers from talking to employees directly about workplace conditions and problems during union elections. A works council would cease to function if the UAW decides to pursue an organization drive at the plant. VW would no longer be allowed to address worker issues in that case, according to former National Labor Relations Board member John N. Raudabaugh.
The UAW did not return requests for comment.
"VW is aspiring to this collaborative system and the UAW is wearing this Halloween costume that they don’t have an adversarial history," he said. "The UAW doesn’t understand this foreign system and the employees haven’t been given the time to gather information to make a decision about the potential negatives."
The potential negatives are numerous, according to Grant.
One of the reasons that VW’s Tennessee plant has flourished, while the company’s Pennsylvania facility floundered, is because of the former remained free of union ties.
"Automakers were looking for a labor force that was more willing to work and less adversarial—they were freer than the UAW workforce in Michigan," said Grant, a Tennessee resident and former union member.
"The reason they came here is the better business environment and worker attitude. The big danger is that the UAW will spread to other [local] auto plants and the union ends up holding car companies hostage like they did in Detroit."
The auto expert said that is a very real possibility if UAW succeeds in hooking the Chattanooga plant.
VW has dedicated millions in resources to expanding operations in countries with terrible track records for workers rights, including China, India, and Russia. The high costs associated with UAW labor contracts could drive jobs overseas.
"VW is [already] planning to build new Audi products in the NAFTA region. If Chattanooga goes UAW, it's almost certain that VW will follow other automakers and send those new jobs to Mexico," the analyst said. "That indicates to me that if Chattanooga unionizes it would be unlikely to benefit from future product expansion. So the real loser here wouldn't be Volkswagen, so much as American workers."
Unionization may end up hurting workers, but it would help the reeling UAW, according to Glenn Taubman, an attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
"They’re a failing union and the only growth in the auto industry is now occurring in right-to-work states, not the traditional union places like Detroit," he said. "They need to go to places like Tennessee because that’s the only way they’ll survive."