A new Volkswagen policy could open the door for the UAW to gain a foothold in right to work Tennessee despite the union’s defeat in February.
The German-based automaker released a new employee association policy on Wednesday, allowing groups that represent at least 15 percent of workers a seat at the bargaining table. Reaching this threshold will allow worker representatives to meet with human resources officials and other aspects of management to discuss work conditions.
"Engagement opportunities will now be available to eligible organizations that represent a significant percentage of employees in the relevant employee group," the policy states.
VW has been attempting to establish a German-style works council that serves as a channel for workers to speak with management. The company had courted the UAW to step into the role, giving the union access to the plant and its employees. However, workers rejected the union in a February election.
The UAW established Local 42, a "voluntary union," in July, despite agreeing to end all union activity for a year following the vote. VW’s policy announcement came one day after the UAW hinted that it had enough members in its voluntary union to reach a card check majority. UAW Secretary Treasurer Gary Casteel, who headed the failed election bid, hailed the new policy as a union victory in a release.
"This is a step forward in building stronger relations between management and employees," he said. "Today, we will begin working with Volkswagen so the company can verify our substantial membership level, which now is in excess of a majority of workers at the plant."
UAW Local 42, which is headquartered more than 600 miles from the Chattanooga plant, did not return request for additional comment.
Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe (R.), a top official in the House labor committee, said that the company and union are attempting to leave workers out of the discussion. He called the decision "an end around" the election.
"When you see either the management or labor try to set up shop and leave employees out it’s wrong," he said. "People that work in that plant have the right to decide whether they want to be a part of that union. This is an end-around around the worker down there."
The policy also drew the ire of the National Right to Work Foundation, which represented a group of employees opposed to unionization before the National Labor Relations Board. NRWF vice president Patrick Semmens said in a release that VW’s decision "leaves the door wide open for VW to recognize the UAW via a coercive card check campaign and without a secret ballot vote."
"This new policy makes it increasingly clear that VW management seems determined to prop up the UAW, even though a majority of VW workers opposed UAW unionization in a secret-ballot vote," Semmens said. "Instead of cutting backroom deals with Detroit and Germany union officials, Volkswagen and the UAW should respect the choice Chattanooga VW employees made earlier this year to reject the UAW."
The decision also opened the door for UAW alternatives.
VW quality inspector Sean Moss said that the policy will allow his group, American Council of Employees (ACE), an official seat at the company table. Moss started ACE in October with several other employees who did not think that the UAW had their best interests in mind; the group has since attracted support from dozens of workers. He said in a phone interview that ACE plans on competing head-to-head with the union for membership.
"What we’re all about is making sure that local issues are dealt with locally by local employees. Employees already have a voice. Want to make sure they use it," Moss said. "We saw an organization coming in and telling us what we need and how we need to do it even though we’ve experienced that all for ourselves."
UAW is only looking out for its own interests, rather than those of the workers, according to Moss. ACE’s goal, he said, is to represent the average worker.
"We hope to increase productivity, control production costs, ready the plant for expansion, and maintain competitive wages and a great work environment. And we want to do it on our own terms," he said.
Auto expert Ed Niedermeyer said that the company’s policy may end up hurting the UAW’s chances to gain control of the plant by allowing groups such as ACE into the mix.
"As long as the UAW can posture as the sole voice of workers, any effort to keep them away from Chattanooga plays to their rhetorical advantage. By allowing the UAW in, but giving workers the same opportunities to engage management without the UAW, VW is eroding the UAW's rhetorical position," Niedermeyer said. "The UAW is only strong where it has a monopoly on representation."