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Policy: Labor

UAW to establish voluntary union for Chattanooga VW workers

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

If you build it, will they come? That is what the United Auto Workers union is hoping in its latest effort to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Detroit-based union is set to announce Thursday that it will create a union local for plant workers, allowing them to join on a voluntary basis.

The local will reportedly not seek recognition from VW though, at least not at first. But UAW officials have said they will seek it if they can get a majority of plant workers to join up. They will presumably then request exclusive bargaining rights for the rest of the plant workers as well.

"We will be announcing a local, and we would fully expect that Volkswagen would deal with this local union if it represents a substantial portion of its employees," UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said, according to the Tennessean. The announcement was set to be made at 3 p.m. in Chattanooga.

UAW is hoping this unofficial local union will enable it to hold onto the Tennessee workers that have backed its prior efforts and allow it to build on that. A union needs only a bare majority of a workplace's employees to claim a right to exclusive representation under federal labor law.

The move comes less than five months after those same workers rejected UAW in a 712-626 vote. Turnout was high too, with 85 percent of the plant's 1,550 eligible employees casting ballots during the three-day vote in February despite the plant being closed down for one of those days due to record snowfall.

The loss was bitter defeat for UAW, which had high hopes that the Chattanooga plant would give them a foothold in the union-averse southern states.

"The election was so close, we don't feel it's right to turn our backs on these workers," Casteel said.

The February election was unusual in that the union had the tacit backing of VW all along. The European carmaker was under pressure from its German workers union, IG Metall, to work with its American counterpart. VW officials hinted broadly prior to the vote that allowing a union would mean they might expand production at the plant. The company also held mandatory meetings in which UAW organizers made their pitches to workers. Anti-union groups were banned from the factory.

Nevertheless, the workers said, "No thanks." Some might have been put off by the hard sell: National Labor Relations Board investigators found some evidence of fraud in UAW's organizing effort, but declined to sanction the union. Other plant employees may have thought a pre-election "neutrality agreement" between VW and UAW showed that the union would not effectively represent the workers. Others may have simply been put off by UAW's close connection to now-bankrupt Detroit.

The union contended that comments made by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., during the election tainted the outcome. Corker, citing unnamed inside sources, said that VW would expand the plant if the union was rejected, a statement contrary to what VW officials had indicated. Shortly after the election, UAW filed a complaint with the NLRB seeking to void the results, but withdrew it in April after Corker refused to testify at a board hearing.

Ironically, UAW officials had initially opposed allowing the workers to vote at all, arguing that VW should instead recognize the union's claim that a majority of workers had signed pro-UAW cards.

Even if VW recognizes a UAW union in Chattanooga and grants it exclusive representation rights, the plant employees would still have the right to tell the union "no". Tennessee adopted a right-to-work law in 1947, meaning workers cannot be forced into joining unions, even in unionized workplaces. It was among the first states to do this.

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