Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
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How UAW can leverage minority support in Chattanooga and elsewhere

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WASHINGTON -- With its defeat at the ballot box in Chattanooga this February, the UAW lost what seemed to be its most winnable organizing battle at a Southern assembly plant.

But at Solidarity House, the war isn’t over.

Today’s surprising news that the UAW will set up a union local for Chattanooga’s Volkswagen AG factory -- despite losing the organizing vote there -- signals a new strategy for the group under President Dennis Williams, who hopes to reverse a longstanding shift to non-union manufacturing that has hurt unionized line workers’ bargaining power.

Williams’ plan is this: Start with the devotees. Win over the doubters later. And it may be a blueprint for how the UAW will try to organize Southern plants owned by companies such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan.

Update, July 11: Sure enough, hours after the publication of this article, the Wall Street Journal reported that the UAW has distributed a flyer at the Mercedes-Benz plant near Vance, Ala., saying that it intends charter a local union there as well.

"Although we will not initially have the right to bargain contracts with the company, we do have the right to form a local union,” says the flyer, which was obtained by the newspaper. “One of the goals of our union will be to build to a majority membership and achieve full collective bargaining rights.”

Labor’s clout

The union local that the UAW plans to start in Chattanooga is a “minority union,” which is allowed under U.S. law, but uncommon. There is a good reason for that. A company has no responsibility to recognize one of these members-only unions.

Many companies would simply kick a minority union to the curb if it asked for higher wages or shorter hours. But not Volkswagen.

Labor leaders hold great sway over BMW, Daimler and VW because German laws give workers seats on the board of industrial companies. And they hold particular power at VW. The automaker’s home province of Lower Saxony holds a substantial share of the company. Lower Saxony and labor representatives, combined, control 12 of the 20 seats on VW’s supervisory board.

Williams knows this dynamic well. Before being elected president, he led the UAW’s international division, where he was intimately involved in strategic talks with IG Metall, the German autoworkers’ union.

Because of labor’s clout within VW, the powerlessness of a minority union is less of a problem. VW executives are under pressure to listen to Chattanooga’s workers -- and have suggested that the UAW could help set up a German-style “works council” to do that.

Minority is enough

Works councils don’t negotiate labor contracts, so they cannot get union members more money, more vacation or shorter hours. But they do negotiate with management on all the other things that can determine whether workers are happy with their jobs.

From past statements, it seems that VW and the UAW think a minority of workers will be enough to start this form of bargaining.

Williams learned in February that most workers in Chattanooga weren’t comfortable enough with the UAW to vote for representation. Some of the people who voted “no” will never come around to the idea of a union. But some of them might.

“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 told Nashville’s Tennesseean newspaper today. “It’s dependent on the employees and what they want to do.”

The bet in Chattanooga is that eventually, workers will get comfortable with the UAW and the works council. One by one, they will pay dues until the union has a majority, with all the added bargaining power that offers under U.S. law.

German automakers are particularly fertile ground, but don’t be surprised if Williams’ UAW tries the same approach across the South.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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