Volkswagen (VW) workers are claiming that the United Auto Workers (UAW) union used "misleading tactics" in its push to unionize a plant in right-to-work Tennessee.
UAW regional director Gary Casteel said on Sept. 12 that a majority of 2,500 workers at VW’s Chattanooga, Tenn. plant signed cards endorsing union organization. Workers came out less than two weeks later alleging that UAW organizers misled employees about what they were signing, according to a complaint filed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
VW, at the request of German union representatives on its board, pushed the Tennessee plant to form a "works council"— a European-style, non-union, employee group that relays worker concerns to management—earlier this year.
The UAW attempted to use the process as a backdoor to full unionization. The cards it passed along to workers said that signing would create "a works council at Chattanooga in which all employees—white collar and blue collar—can participate."
However, the union card also authorized the UAW to "represent [workers] in collective bargaining."
A majority of employee signatures on such cards could push all workers into the UAW through "card check" unionization, rather than create the works council they thought they were forming.
The NLRB complaint, filed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on behalf of eight workers, said that the union organizers misled workers into thinking that their signature would be used solely for a works council or to authorize a secret ballot election.
"The UAW solicited, enticed, and/or demanded VW employees' signatures by unlawful means including misrepresentations, coercion, threats, and promises," the complaint said. "The UAW, for more than a year and one-half, solicited VW employees' signatures on ‘authorization cards’ in an effort to deliberately and covertly avoid a secret ballot election."
The complaint could prove problematic for the union, according to former NLRB member John Raudabaugh, because it alleges that the union solicited some of the signatures 18 months ago, long before VW began pushing for a works council.
"That’s far too long under board procedures," he said.
A company spokesman declined an interview for the story. The union did not respond to requests for comment.
Raudabaugh said that NLRB complaints were inevitable because "almost no one really understands German-style works councils," adding that the UAW’s signature-gathering methods exacerbated the confusion.
"It’s a little bit of bait and switch, which is all the more reason why a secret ballot election is way to go," Raudabaugh said. "Card signing is rife with overreach and misrepresentation."
The card check scheme also left employees vulnerable to intimidation. The complaint said that employees who changed their minds over the course of 18 months could only rescind their signature by personally visiting union officials.
"Despite making it so easy to sign union ‘cards’ at the workplace, UAW union officials are now demanding workers to go to the union office to exercise their right to reclaim their cards," National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation president Mark Mix said in a statement. "This case underscores how card check unionization schemes make it ‘easy to check in, but impossible to check out.’"
Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.) said that UAW's tactics in his backyard highlight the need for the Secret Ballot Protection Act, legislation that he proposed over the summer to guarantee workers secret elections.
"Without secret ballots, workers are susceptible to intimidation, harassment, pressure and potentially threats to vote in a certain way," Roe said in a statement. "Card check causes a high pressure and one-sided sales pitch."
One auto industry expert said that the UAW’s campaign relied on sowing confusion among the employees by "convincing workers the only way they can have a works council-style dialogue with management is if they unionize."
"If they had anything of value to offer Chattanooga workers they wouldn't need to even use this tactic," the source said.
Raudabaugh said that the union has been transparent in its quest to unionize the workers, rather than form a works council.
"[UAW President Robert] King has been upfront in using a new model [to organize] and utilizing VW to do it," he said. "They’ve gotten nowhere in traditional campaigns. UAW membership is very much depleted. The U.S. auto industry is rather grim, so by trying to attach to works council, that’s the equivalent of rebranding."
Rep. Roe said that the government should work to safeguard the rights of workers in union elections.
"The Secret Ballot Protection Act empowers workers to make informed choices and protects workers from this sort of intimidation," Roe said. "I have no problem with employees who want to form a union, but the process to establish a union must be open, transparent and fair."