On Tuesday, the human resources department at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., released a new policy allowing for voluntary recognition of multiple unions at their plant.
The company said it would recognize any union that can show it represents at least 15 percent of the employees in the plant. As detailed below, the company will bestow greater privileges upon organizations that prove they represent more workers. These include use of company facilities and meetings with VW’s human resources department and executive committee.
On Monday, USA Today reported that UAW hailed the policy “as a vehicle to soon gain representation of workers at its first foreign auto plant in the South.”
The UAW’s dual claims on what they would like to see in Chattanooga may be at odds. On one hand they claim that their work with VW, specifically the establishment of a “works council,” would be a “new model for collaboration,” and on the other hand their goal is to be the exclusive representative of all employees at the plant.
VW’s new policy is a good test case for the type of voluntary and collaborative unionism that the Mackinac Center espouses in our new study, “Unionization for the 21st Century: Solutions for the Ailing Labor Movement,” and one that seems to comport with the UAW’s public organizing strategy of the Tennessee plant (although not with their actual goal of becoming the only union at the plant to represent all employees, gaining “exclusive representation”).
So far the UAW has been unable to garner the needed support from a majority of the employees to be recognized as the exclusive representative. The UAW was defeated 712-626 in February when it tried to become the monopoly bargaining agent.
Soon after the union formed Local 42, which was not recognized by VW but would serve as a launching pad for future organizing attempts. The new policy would allow Local 42 to be recognized but not have the same powers as if the union had achieved a majority election through the National Labor Relation Act — something the UAW may again attempt despite the new policy.
The biggest winner of the policy could be a rival union known as the American Council of Employees, which is a local union that is an alternative to the UAW. According to its website, ACE is “not a national organization” but “an independent employee council created to ensure that all VW Chattanooga employees have a voice on the Volkswagen Global Works Council.”
The site, geared toward VW workers at the plant, further explains that ACE only wants to represent the interests of fellow employees and has no political agenda: “With ACE, we — the employees of VW Chattanooga — get to represent ourselves with a unified voice and a direct line of communication to corporate leadership.”
Maury Nicely, a labor lawyer who works with anti-UAW workers, said Volkswagen's new policy could be viewed as a win for both the UAW and the American Council of Employees.
"As I understand it, the policy is going to offer the opportunity for any group that gets 15% of support to get a seat at the table with Volkswagen," Nicely said. "It actually is going to open the door to groups in addition to the UAW."
If the UAW is serious about embracing a new form of unionism, it will adopt VW’s new policy. If, however, they push to be the exclusive representative for all employees at the Chattooga plant, all of its past overtures will prove untrue and tragically VW’s innovative policy will be rendered moot.
Volkswagen’s new policy of voluntary representation is the type of new unionism needed for the 21st century. Allowing competition without compulsion in representation by multiple unions will be best for both the workers and the carmaker.
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