Bob King, the current president of the large-but-shrinking United Auto Workers (UAW) union, has said repeatedly that his union needs to unionize an auto transplant plant in the southern U.S. in order to stem the UAW’s membership losses of the past few decades. Such a move would be a huge moral victory for the beleagured union, which has lost 75 percent of its membership from its 1979 peak, going from 1.53 million members to just 380,719 as of the end of 2011 (I couldn’t find 2012 year-end numbers on the UAW’s website). So far, his organizing goal has been elusive, but there may be some help from the UAW’s brothers in Germany.
IG Metall, the largest union in Germany and the union that represents all of Volkswagen’s workers in Germany, has come out in support of unionizing VW Chattanooga’s workers. Berthold Huber, president of the union, issued a flyer to Chattanooga’s workforce of 2,350 hourly employees earlier this month that said, “In Chattanooga, you need union representation” to negotiate working conditions. We strongly recommend that the eligible employees at Volkswagen, Chattanooga, decide that the UAW should represent them.”
Further adding to speculation that VW Chattanooga may become the first plant operated by a foreign-based automaker to accept union representation were comments from VW’s board member responsible for human resources, Horst Neumann, who said that the company was in talks with the UAW about setting up a German-style labor board at its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant.
Such a move, though less adversarial than the traditional labor-management relationship, would still require VW Chattanooga workers to vote for UAW representation. The German model is that half of the management board seats are occupied by management representatives, and half by labor representatives. During Daimler’s ownership of Chrysler, Bob King’s predecessor, Ron Gettelfinger, served for a few years as a member of DaimlerChrysler’s management board.
Despite some positive signs, it’s still not a given that VW’s Tennessee workers would accept UAW representation. Last year, during an employee meeting, comments about not needing union representation at the plant were met with cheers.
Still, with Chattanooga being VW’s only plant (other than its Chinese joint-venture ones) that does not have union representation, keeping it union-free is apparently not a huge priority for Europe’s largest automaker. Or, perhaps Volkswagen has intentionally put on a face of indifference toward union representation in Tennessee so that workers at the plant do not see vehement opposition to UAW representation – if management doesn’t make a big deal, maybe it’s not a big deal, and maybe it’s not necessary.
Since Tennessee is a right-to-work state (as is Michigan, starting March 28), individual employees may opt out of joining the union, even if the plant had voted to accept UAW representation. Still, having a workforce that is majority union-represented would presumably 1) cause peer pressure to influence non-members to join the union, and 2) impact the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the workforce when management has to adhere to UAW work rule restrictions that are currently not in place.
VW Chattanooga may not be the UAW’s last chance to unionize a southern plant (the union has been trying for years to unionize Nissan’s plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, without success), but it’s probably the union’s best chance. Back in 1979 during the UAW’s heyday, three quarters of the union’s 1.53 million members (or about 1,147,500) were employed by Ford, GM, or Chrysler. Today, just one third of the union’s 380,719 members (or about 126,906) work for GM, Ford, or Chrysler. The union has stanched some of its membership losses with diversification into service workers such as casino employees, retail companies, and government employees, but the UAW’s influence is clearly waning.