When the United Auto Workers in April 2014 gave up on its bid to unionize hourly workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga two months after its ballot defeat, then-President Bob King intimated the union would be back. It's a lot more than an intimation now. On December 4, robotics and other machine maintenance workers at the facility voted 108-44 in favor of UAW representation. The National Labor Relations Board a week earlier had approved a union request for an election. Unlike the last time, VW is not siding with the union. Even before the vote, the German automaker had announced its intent to appeal the NLRB ruling. The victorious workers are but a fraction of all employees, but they are celebrating all the same. And the NLRB remains very much in the picture.
When it comes to organizing German-owned facilities in the U.S., the United Auto Workers can't be accused of shyness - or it would seem, transparency. For the past several months, the union, led since early June by its new president, Dennis Williams, has been stepping up its campaign to represent Mercedes-Benz workers in central Alabama. The UAW, still smarting from its election defeat this February at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., is aware that victory is unlikely. To overcome disadvantage, organizers apparently have been resorting to misinformation. They've been telling workers that federal law bars them from discussing pay and working conditions unless they belong to a union.
The United Auto Workers may have declined in numbers, but its taste for confrontation appears as strong as ever. And its new leader, Dennis Williams, isn't about to let anyone forget. Last Wednesday, June 4, Williams, the UAW secretary-treasurer these last four years, overwhelmingly was elected president at the union convention in Detroit. Inaugurated the following day, Williams, now 61, replaces one-term President Bob King, who at 67 retired in the face of the union's mandatory age limit. Williams' main priority is ending the two-tier wage system to which the union agreed in 2007 as part of a deal to keep General Motors, Ford and Chrysler afloat. He'll get to test his mettle in contract negotiations next year. The union shouldn't lack for funds in this or any other endeavor; delegates approved a 25 percent dues hike.
The United Auto Workers is a union that likes a good fight. But even its leaders recognize a lost cause - for now. This morning the union withdrew its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board challenging a secret ballot election held in mid-February that would have enabled it to represent workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga. Despite having committed VW management to silence via neutrality agreement, the UAW lost by 712 to 626. The union immediately claimed the results were invalid as a result of undue interference by anti-union Tennessee public officials. On February 21, the UAW filed a request with the NLRB to overturn the vote. Yet today it dropped its suit.
By any reasonable assessment, the odds are against the United Auto Workers. But the union is going ahead anyway with its effort to nullify a vote by Volkswagen assembly plant workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. to reject UAW representation. On Friday, February 21, only hours before expiration of the seven-day deadline, the union filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to overturn the election, decided by a 712-to-626 margin. The outcome was a bitter pill to swallow. A victory would have served as a springboard for organizing drives at foreign-owned auto plants elsewhere in the South.
All eyes, it seemed, were on Tennessee. The stakes were enormous. If the United Auto Workers got to represent employees at the Volkswagen assembly plant near Chattanooga, which opened in 2011, it could create more organizing successes throughout the South. That gambit now is on hold. Last Friday, February 14, the announcement from VW came: Plant employees, by a 712-to-626 margin, voted to reject UAW representation. In choosing to remain nonunion, the majority expressed their preference for resolving wage, benefit and working conditions issues through a German-style 'works council' rather than formal collective bargaining; VW headquarters has instituted such councils at virtually all its plants around the world.
Membership in the United Auto Workers has declined dramatically these past few decades. But its officials at last may have found a way to recapture the glory days: Team up with the Germans. Last month, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., alleged that an activist board member of Volkswagen Group forced the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker to disclose that it was negotiating with the UAW to unionize its Chattanooga assembly plant. This factory, like other foreign-owned plants in the South, is nonunion. The powerful German union, IG Metall, and VW management are backing the UAW's campaign to change that. The UAW recently announced that a majority of workers there had signed cards indicating their desire to join.
Chrysler recently reported a 4th quarter loss of $652 million. So what does a UAW majority owned company that is losing money do? How about a bonus for UAW workers?
Current Chrysler ownership breakdown puts the UAW at a 63.5% ownership stake while the US Treasury holds a 9.2% stake. Italy's Fiat currently owns 25%. Bonuses planned for UAW workers are estimated to average $750.
The New York Timesreports that the auto industry "overhaul" (AKA General Motors' bankruptcy) is about to "pay off handsomely" for UAW workers at GM. GM, along with Ford, is expected to announce profit-sharing checks for hourly workers this month. UAW president, Bob King, states that workers expect to get a piece of GM's profits.
Earlier this month, General Motors made a $4 billion cash contribution to its UAW pension fund. Reports state that an additional $2 billion worth of GM common stock will be contributed to the fund. What is not being reported is where the stock is coming from.
In addition to public ownership since the IPO, GM common shares are currently held by the US Treasury, Canadian Government, the UAW and Motors Liquidation Company (creditors of Old GM). Unless the US Treasury is giving away taxpayer shares, new shares will have to be issued for an additional $2 billion worth of common shares to fund UAW pension plans.