- - Thursday, February 19, 2015


Valentine’s Day marked the first anniversary of the defeat of an attempt by the United Auto Workers to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Detroit-based union spent years and millions of dollars trying to organize workers at the German-owned factory on the Tennessee-Georgia border, and lost decisively in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW did not lose gracefully. Like a spurned suitor, it threw a temper tantrum, and persuaded the NLRB to deliver federal subpoenas to those the union said had “interfered” with the election, including several nonprofit advocacy groups. Finally realizing they had no case, the union dropped the challenges to the election and moved on to phase two of jilted lover syndrome, stalking. Though told to get lost, the union took up residence at Volkswagen, anyway.

Union officials organized a nonbinding, non-union union called Local 42, sort of like a fraternity or sorority, and opened rush week, signing up “members.” If they could gather enough signatures for their club to meet the threshold, maybe the company would recognize Local 42 as the exclusive bargaining representative without the inconvenience of another election. Then workers who had led the opposition to organizing, organized their own non-union union, and called it the American Council of Employees (ACE).

Volkswagen now had two suitors, both pressing the age-old strategy of rejected suitors: “We could just be friends, then.” The company responded with a bizarre document setting out something called Community Organization Engagement, to enable both clubs to compete for the affections of both management and workers.

Under the new policy “eligible organizations” would have “the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue with Volkswagen and its employees.” The company would grant different levels of access, based on the worker support each organization could prove. Each group would be required to supply a list of members and “written certification that it has signed individual membership authorizations for each employee listed,” to be verified by an outside auditor. VW took pains to say that no group could claim exclusive bargaining representation for all employees. That must be awarded in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act.

Local 42 handed in their signatures to the independent auditor, and Volkswagen agreed that Local 42 had reached the 45 percent, or top-tier, threshold. ACE handed in its signatures, and this week the company said it had achieved the 15 percent, or lowest-tier, threshold. ACE now has the privilege of meeting “monthly with Volkswagen human resources [representatives] to present topics of general interest to their membership.”

Since under federal labor law neither group can bargain, they can’t negotiate wages, hours or working conditions. “So what will ACE be discussing with management that is of ‘general interest’ to its members?,” asks Matt Patterson, the executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom. “University of Tennessee football? Men’s fashions? And what does Local 42 get for making it to the top-tier threshold? They get to meet Volkswagen’s human resources representatives twice a month.

Many workers call this a farce to distract from the obvious, that the union lost the election. VW employees already have the right to speak at any time to their supervisors and human resources representatives, without the help of either ACE or Local 42. If either club becomes an actual union, workers will lose that. Rush week, with all its many distractions, was fun, and now the workers at Volkswagen can get back to their real work of building cars.

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