On Wednesday through Friday, 1500 autoworkers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee will vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers union in a landmark National Labor Relations Board election. Like other U.S. outposts of foreign auto companies, the facility, which opened in 2011, has never had a union.
A vote for unionization at Volkswagen would be a historic victory — not only for the UAW, but for the entire labor movement. It would provide unions with a key victory in the South, even in the face of a lavishly-funded external anti-union campaign, and may lead to transformative changes in labor-management relations, especially among European-owned firms.
If the Chattanooga workers vote to unionize, they will provide another example that when companies remain neutral in union elections, employees usually choose unions. Instead of pressuring the employees to vote against the UAW, Volkswagen management has let workers make the choice on their own. This is exactly what should happen in union elections, but rarely does. Volkswagen would probably have recognized the union on the basis of documented interest among workers, but Republican politicians and anti-union groups such as the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC) demanded that the company hold an NLRB election. Ironically, the NRTWC has insisted that Volkswagen provide employees who oppose the UAW with an opportunity to make their case to the workforce, something that pro-union workers never enjoy during standard U.S. anti-union campaigns.
Unionized workers at the Chattanooga plant would almost certainly get the first works council in the United States — a type of organization that deals with issues of employee welfare and management, such as flexibility in work schedules. Works councils, which operate at the plant level, have long been a key aspect of employment relations in many European countries. Currently, every one of Volkswagen’s 61 major production facilities outside of China has both a union and a works council, except for the Tennessee plant. A successful works council at Volkswagen may lead to other corporations adopting this innovative (for the U.S.) form of worker representation.
A vote for unionization would provide the UAW with a key victory in the “foreign auto transplants” — the U.S. plants of European and Asian auto manufacturers, most of which are located in southern right-to-work states. The UAW has encountered robust opposition when it has attempted to organize in these facilities. Nissan is currently resisting efforts by autoworkers in Canton, Mississippi to form a union. The company is also fighting pro-union workers in Smyrna, Tennessee, where it defeated organizing campaigns in 1989 and 2001, after it allegedly threatened job losses, plant closings, relocation to Mexico, and a loss of wages and benefits if the union prevailed. The UAW has organized in several U.S.-Japanese joint auto ventures, but not in any wholly-owned foreign automakers.