Volkswagen Initiative Even More Interesting Than Advertised

dfp1111chattanoogauawNew Orleans   The actual announcement of the new employee relations rules for the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was actually even more interesting than the early leaks and advertisements from the United Automobile Workers (UAW). What the company really did, very expressly, is initiate a huge private sector program of “meet and confer” bargaining with organizations based on their level of worker support in the plant. If this works it might, as many of us have argued over the years in advocating “majority” unionism, point to a path where we can make progress with giant employers that have eluded any kind of worker organization for decades.

Admittedly, one of the things that I found attractive about the policy, was the fact that the company called it their Policy on Community Organization, recognizing perhaps more subtly than they even realized how much the weight of the potential new dawn for labor could rest on a better understanding of the potential and promise of deep, patient community organization methodology to achieve its purposes. The policy provides different levels of access and frequency of meetings based on levels of worker support at 15, 30, or 45%. The UAW at the point has indicated that it has majority support in its newly founded Local 42, while one of the anti-union groups claims to be nearing 15% support.

The company is also very clear that this new policy will not be a path to exclusive representation. I had wondered in an earlier report how they would navigate the political and community perils in Chattanooga had they provided voluntary recognition based on a majority showing by the UAW. They seem to be very aware of this as well, leading me to guess than if, and when, exclusive representation comes, there will be an election before it happens. Even picking the 45% level of support indicates recognition of the NLRB and labor law issues that surround this policy.  If a company verifies and agrees that a union has more than 50% support of the workforce, a union can file an 8(a)5 charge for the company’s failure to bargain and failure to recognize the union as the exclusive representative of the employees.  Clearly, VW does not want to be caught in that trap, and the UAW has also undoubtedly agreed privately with the company that they will not push them into that position either.

As importantly the UAW and its officers are embracing “members only” representation which is also widely practiced in labor relations around the world where multi-union bargaining is the norm.  Gary Casteel, the UAW Secretary-Treasurer issued a statement saying that their only concern with the new rules is making sure they were now going to be able to represent their members.

As importantly the UAW and its officers are embracing “members only” representation which is also widely practiced in labor relations around the world where multi-union bargaining is the norm. Gary Casteel, the UAW Secretary-Treasurer issued a statement saying that there only concern with the new rules is making sure they were now going to be able to represent their members.

Both “meet and confer” and “members’ only” representation have been common in United States public sector unionization and are actually prevalent still in Southern right-to-work states where exclusive representation is still rare for teachers, state, and local public workers. “Meet and confer” bargaining has also been a frequent way station for unions in developing their base, as it was for many home health care workers over the last number of decades.

For the UAW this is still a breakthrough in organizing foreign carmakers, and if it works in Chattanooga, could finally provide them with a path forward in organizing this sector, which they badly need. But, for all workers in the United States, this could also point the way to many more breakthroughs for private sector workers where union density is still heading to only 5% of total private sector employment. Embracing these strategies could finally rebuild the labor movement through aggressive organizing, effective member representation, and patient bargaining, if we can make this work.

The old days are gone, and it’s time to get past them and embrace the future, and we may be seeing it now in Chattanooga.

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Please enjoy an early Merry Christmas with Lucinda Williams’ Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Beth Orton’s River from All is Bright, from Amazon Music and courtesy of KABF.

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