UAW risks moral stance with VW election gambit

David Barkholz covers labor for Automotive News.

After losing a general union election last year at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, the UAW has returned with a new election petition to represent just 160 skilled-trades workers there.

VW, which was accommodating to the UAW in the first election, is vehemently opposing the current maneuver.

This is the worst possible time in management’s view to inject turmoil into a plant, that like VW’s worldwide organization, is trying to survive a diesel emissions scandal likely to cost the company far in excess of $10 billion. The union says the workers asked for representation.

We should know by early next week whether the generally labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board will allow the UAW to carve out skilled trades workers for an election. Or the board could side with VW’s argument that if an election must be held, it be for all 1,500 workers in Chattanooga as in the first election.

That’s the immediate issue. The bigger question I have is whether winning a small victory at VW, under the most extreme of circumstances, will truly give the UAW the foothold it desires to launch a wider organizing campaign against foreign transplant operations in the South.

That was always the strategy of previous UAW President Bob King. He operated on the premise that if he could just win VW, he could use moral suasion and the allies he had built among social justice organizations to pressure the other German, Japanese and Korean carmakers to recognize union representation.

That’s why the loss of the first VW union election in early 2014 was so devastating to the UAW.

King and the union had spent tens of millions of dollars readying for the VW campaign only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when local and national politicians joined the opposition at the 11th hour. Tellingly, VW’s management at Chattanooga had bent over backward to provide the UAW with access to workers and the union still lost the election.

Now the union is back to organize roughly 10 percent of the plant’s workforce, six months after UAW Secretary-Treasurer and Tennessee resident Gary Casteel in a conference call said the union had no intention of holding another election at VW Chattanooga. By the way, the 160 workers targeted for the election had an opportunity to vote in the first election.

The UAW declined to comment until after the NLRB decides on whether to permit the limited election.

The risk I see for the UAW is in winning the battle of Chattanooga, it ends up losing the war to organize the other transplants.

After all, what moral high ground is gained by using the opportunity of VW’s distress to cherry pick a small group of workers to represent?

You can reach Dave Barkholz at dbarkholz@crain.com

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