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UAW forms voluntary association at Chattanooga Volkswagen plant

The UAW hopes forming a voluntary association is one step toward eventually unionizing a car plant in Tennessee.
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. on June 31, 2012.
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. on June 31, 2012.

Five months after the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in its bid to unionize Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., manufacturing plant, the union is giving it another go. But this time, they're not bothering with the traditional election route.

Instead of calling on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer an election, the UAW has decided to form a voluntary association called Local 42. At least initially, the group will not collectively bargain on behalf of the plant's whole workforce, and it will not collect dues. Yet if a majority of the plant's employees agree to join Local 42, there is a chance that Volkswagen will recognize it as the workers' exclusive bargaining agent, granting it full union privileges without the need for an election.

“We’ve had ongoing discussions with Volkswagen and have arrived at a consensus with the company,” said UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel in a statement. “Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local."

What Casteel means by "consensus" is not entirely clear, since Volkswagen has "no contract or other formal agreement with UAW on this matter," according to a statement from company spokesperson Scott Wilson. Yet if a substantial majority of the Chattanooga plant's workers decide to affiliate with Local 42, it seems highly likely that Volkswagen would agree to recognize the association as a bargaining agent, instead of demanding a second unionization election. The company originally supported unionization as part of a strategy to implement a German-style "works council" in the plant, thereby giving workers a limited role in developing company policy. Volkswagen, whose corporate headquarters is in Germany, has already implemented similar work councils at all of its manufacturing plants worldwide.

The UAW narrowly lost its bid to unionize the Chattanooga plant back in February, despite support from management. The union and various pro-labor groups blame outside conservative groups for the loss, saying their intervention in the election "contaminated" the results. For example, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, claimed that he had been "assured" Volkswagen would expand its business in Chattanooga if workers agreed to reject unionization. The Center for Worker Freedom, a project of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, also campaigned against the UAW's organizing drive.

The workers' decision not to unionize was an inconvenience to Volkswagen, but a disaster for UAW. The union has already suffered greatly in recent years as organized labor's fortunes declined overall and auto manufacturers migrated south from the traditional union power base in the Rust Belt. In order to reverse its decline, UAW needs to expand to manufacturing plants in the traditionally non-union South, and the union had bet on Chattanooga's Volkswagen location as the one workplace where they would be able to do so with management's acquiescence.

Although UAW lost a traditional NLRB election even with those favorable circumstances, they have a much better shot at success this time around, according to Vanderbilt University sociology professor Dan Cornfield.

"This method, what they're using now, typically occurs when the union and the workers expect the company to recognize the union without an election," he said. "But also, presumably in this instance, it's to do an end run around some of these third party national, state, and local anti-union forces."

UAW is also trying something similar at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., where it recently formed yet another minority representation local similar to Local 42. Cornfield predicted that the union might also try something similar at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

"The reason why I think this method works well in the South is that there are a lot of anti-union feelings among southern workers for traditional cultural reasons, and this approach to organizing — even though the employer might put up resistance — may be more palatable to the workers," he told msnbc.

Sen. Corker and his staff, however, are unimpressed.

“There has been some confusion about what happened yesterday related to the UAW’s announcement that they are opening an office in Chattanooga and its impact on Volkswagen's expansion considerations,” said Todd Womack, Corker’s chief of staff, in a statement. “The fact is, nothing happened. Any union can rent space in any city and open an office. Volkswagen made it very clear in their statement that they have no agreement whatsoever with the UAW."