Sean Moss just wanted to crank out high quality cars when he joined Volkswagen in June 2011, but he is now leading an insurgent campaign to deliver his co-workers from the UAW.
Moss is the president of the American Council of Employees (ACE), a worker-driven labor organization established in October to offer employees an alternative to the UAW, which has spent two years attempting to win control of the Chattanooga plant.
"What we’ve built is an independent organization made up entirely of workers to give workers a local voice," he said.
Moss said that much of the debate over unionization at the Chattanooga plant has been too wrapped up in politics and outside interests.
The UAW’s Tennessee chapter, Local 42, is headquartered nine hours away, in Detroit. VW and its main labor group, IG Metall, are headquartered in Germany. Groups from Washington, both for and against the union, see the fight as a D.C. political contest focused on right to work laws in Tennessee and organized labor in Michigan.
Moss doesn’t much care about any of that. He wants to focus on Chattanooga and the community that depends on companies like VW for work.
"We’re here to build cars, help the company, which helps the community to stay strong," Moss said. "Who better to address those problems than local workers?"
Moss has been happy with management’s treatment of workers at the plant. He began working on the assembly line in 2011, but soon after "my hands went south." The company found work better suited for his medical condition and established him as a quality control inspector. The UAW’s claims that employees could not receive fair treatment from management struck Moss as hollow.
"What the UAW was doing was claiming to be the employees’ voice, but they’re not speaking for the employees," he said.
VW announced on Wednesday that employee groups representing at least 15 percent of its 1,500-person workforce would be eligible to meet with management. The policy was seen as a giveaway to the UAW, which claims that its "voluntary local union" has amassed a majority of worker members just nine months after losing an NLRB election to become the plant’s sole bargaining agent.
The UAW is not the only one signing up workers. Moss sent the company a letter on Wednesday asking it to begin certifying membership cards dated after the start of the new policy. He wants a "level playing field" with the UAW, which has enjoyed company support over a two-year-long organization campaign, including a master contact list of plant workers.
"We are asking for the list already provided to the UAW. We want fair oversight and a transparent process," he said.
Auto expert Ed Niedermeyer said that the new company policy could help Moss siphon away supporters who had previously opted for the UAW.
"VW openly fighting the UAW would have simply reinforced the UAW's framing of the debate. By coopting them without giving them anything they want, VW has eliminated the UAW's critiques without incurring any real disadvantages," he said. "As much as this might look like a win for them, it just isn't. Without exclusivity, the UAW's "victory" is anything but."
Labor watchdogs are more skeptical about the company’s intentions. Matt Patterson, spokesman for the Center for Worker Freedom, a project of Americans for Tax Reform, praised Moss and ACE for offering workers an alternative to the traditional union, but said the new policy looked like a "smokescreen," given VW’s cozy relationship with the UAW in Tennessee.
"The ultimate goal for Volkswagen is to get the UAW in there," he said. "This whole policy is a PR ploy to seem to make it fair for everyone while privately hoping the UAW can get exclusive representation."
Moss is confident in the workers to see through the union spin.
"Our guys are looking for a group that doesn’t have union bosses, or bureaucracy, or a political agenda," he said.