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Policy: Labor

Volkswagen's not waiting around for Big Labor

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Tennessee,NLRB,Bob Corker,Volkswagen,Chattanooga,UAW,Magazine

Do Volkswagen officials really want their Chattanooga, Tenn., plant to have a unionized workforce? Or are they just going through the motions to keep Big Labor appeased while they expand the current facility?

The Chattanooga plant has been at the forefront of the United Auto Workers' effort to get a foothold in the union-averse south -- and therefore a major front in the battle for Big Labor's future.

UAW has had VW’s help too, with the company giving it easy access to its workforce. The collaboration seemed to herald a new organizing model based on focusing on foreign-owned companies.

Or maybe not. On Monday, VW officials announced that they would be pouring $600 million into building a new sport utility vehicle in Chattanooga. This came five months after workers rejected having a union, which was supposedly necessary before any expansion.

That doesn't mean the plant won't ever be unionized. UAW is still trying and VW officials tossed a sizable bone to Big Labor by putting Bernd Osterloh onto its U.S. board. He's a labor official as well as head of VW's global works council and the guy who said the plant needed a union.

Nevertheless, the company is still making a major expansion at a nonunion plant. If VW officials really were on board with collective bargaining, they could have done it elsewhere. In fact, they could have simply awarded exclusive bargaining rights to UAW last year, as the union itself wanted.

Instead, VW officials treaded a fine line that gave the union a chance without guaranteeing it success. And now it is moving on.

It's no secret that one of the attractions of right-to-work Tennessee for Big Business is that Big Labor has little presence there. Looking at just the auto industry, Nissan and General Motors have major facilities there.

That presented a problem for Volkswagen since European law gives its labor organizations a lot more clout in businesses decisions. Osterloh helped his American counterparts by saying the Chattanooga workers had to have an employee-management "works council" before any expansion could be approved. That created an opening for UAW, since under U.S. law you cannot having a works council without a union.

Opposing UAW's bid could have resulted in labor problems at home, so VW was officially neutral. It also let union organizers into the plant while barring outside conservative groups, among other benefits to the union.

The one thing VW did not do, though, was recognize UAW's claim in late 2013 that it had already gotten a majority to back collective bargaining. Then-UAW President Bob King and his top Chattanooga organizer, Gary Casteel (now the union's secretary-treasurer), both initially opposed letting the workers vote, saying the Card Check election ought to be enough.

Instead, VW officials called for a secret ballot vote. It not clear why - it may have been to mollify Republican critics like Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker.

Or maybe they took a gamble that UAW was bluffing. Either way, they took the one position the union couldn't strenuously object to that could also have kept the plant nonunion.

That's what happened. In a February vote, the workers rejected UAW, 712-626. The union didn't blame the company though. King even praised it for creating "a free and open atmosphere for workers."

Since then the once-crucial works council idea has faded. Volkswagen's announcement Monday made no specific reference to having one in Chattanooga.

UAW is still trying to win over the workers, recently creating a voluntary membership union local there.

But the strongest argument it had — that a union was needed to get a more jobs at the plant — is now gone. UAW has instead switched to trying to take credit for the expansion.

Meanwhile VW's stance seems to be, "You're welcome to keep on trying, but we gave you a chance and we're not waiting around anymore."

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner

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