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Policy: Labor

Liberal activist lays out plan for UAW do-over at Chattanooga Volkswagen plant

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Tennessee,NLRB,Bob Corker,Volkswagen,Chattanooga,UAW,Bill Haslam

Despite a humiliating rejection by the workers and an abrupt decision to abandon an effort to get the feds to order a new election, the United Auto Workers union hasn't given up on organizing the workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, according to a prominent liberal activist. Instead, the union is trying to lay the groundwork for another an election, perhaps next year.

That's what Wade Rathke, founder of the liberal activist group ACORN, argues in a column that's getting passed around in the liberal side of the blogosphere. (I found it on the Democratic Socialists of America's Talking Union blog.)

UAW’s critics "are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession," Rathke wrote in a post for his own blog April 22.

Rathke's analysis explains UAW's sometimes-inexplicable moves since losing an organizing election at the Volkswagen plant by a 712-626 vote on Feb. 14.

The key, he argues, is to get Volkswagen to expand production at the plant — and for the union to portray itself as having facilitated that. This will help win over the workers who rejected collective bargaining and “de-fang” the Republicans and conservative groups who opposed UAW.

“You can bet that UAW organizers have done extensive work in the last three months to reassess their ‘yes’ votes and gauge the hardness of the ‘no’ votes and whether they can turn them,” said Rathke, himself a recognized expert in liberal grassroots organizing.

The February loss was a big surprise because Volkswagen, under pressure from its German union, IG Metall, was tacitly working with UAW. The carmaker required Chattanooga employees to attend mandatory meetings where they heard from union organizers. Anti-union groups were banned from the plant.

Further boosting UAW's efforts was that Volkswagen officials had strongly implied that having a union was a necessary step before the company could expand production in Tennessee to add a new SUV line.

UAW -- which ironically had opposed allowing the workers to have a secret ballot vote in the first place -- blamed Republican interference for its loss. It pointed to comments by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that unnamed Volkswagen insiders told him that expansion would go ahead if a union was rejected.

The union also attacked comments by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and other state GOP leaders that having a union at the plant could jeopardize its eligibility for state tax incentives. After the election, local media revealed that the Republicans had told Volkswagen that as much as $300 million was at stake.

UAW argued that this was inference that tainted the election results. It called on the National Labor Relations Board to void the results and order a new one.

On April 21, UAW abruptly dropped its complaint. The union's stated reason was that Corker and other Republicans had refused to comply with subpoenas to testify, undermining their case.

In the same announcement, UAW also made a point saying that Volkswagen should go ahead an add the new SUV line: "The UAW wants to help create quality jobs and build world-class products for American consumers. … With this in mind, we urge Gov. Haslam to immediately extend the incentives that previously were offered to Volkswagen for this new SUV line, and do so unconditionally."

Rathke argues this was a canny strategic move that sets up the UAW for another vote next year:

It gets them back into the framework of being a job creator rather than a job threat, which had sunk their first vote. If the governor and the union baiters can’t convince VW to add the line, they are losers, bullies, and blowhards, and the UAW doesn’t have that problem on its shoes. ...

If the line doesn’t get added by VW, then the Governor and the union-haters are defanged in a 2nd election. If the line does get added, there will categorically be non-interference concessions privately made to the company, the UAW will have publicly been on the right side in advocating for more jobs, and will face a second election, the workers willing, on much, much stronger ground.

The "non-interference concessions" will involve Volkswagen — which, remember, was working with the unions on this — insisting on a "behind the scenes commitment" with the Tennessee politicians to "keep out of employee relations at the plant" — i.e., stay quiet during an election.

Rathke appears to have read UAW correctly. The union hit the "job creator" theme hard in an April 29 op-ed for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, repeating its call for the governor to “immediately extend” the incentives.

Dropping the NLRB complaint when it did also made sense from UAW’s perspective because it was unlikely the union could have won. It was highly unusual to allege election inference by a third party and not management or the union. An NLRB rejection would have made UAW two-time losers on this.

Instead, the union got weeks of news coverage repeating its claims of unfairness without having to prove them. Meanwhile, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a staunch union ally and the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is pushing for hearings into Haslam's incentives. This will ensure the meme continues. UAW's Bob King called congressional hearings the "best opportunity for additional scrutiny."

Rathke concedes this is far from a foolproof plan but argues it will put UAW "on much, much stronger ground" the next time around.

That's optimistic on his part. UAW's loss was due to a lot more than just Republican opposition. Then again, the vote margin was just 86 out of 1,550 eligible workers.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner