In a surprise attack, the UAW has taken the first formal steps to unionize Volkswagen’s U.S. factory in Chattanooga. In what Reuters calls “an escalation of its effort to establish a foothold outside the Detroit automakers,” the UAW started passing out authorization cards for workers to sign. According to U.S. labor laws, the union needs signatures from at least 30 percent of the workers of a plant before a representation election can go ahead. The UAW’s timing could not have been worse.
The UAW’s attack on Volkswagen, which has its U.S. plant at the former site of a World War II munitions factory, is an undercover operation. Its cover has been blown by Bernie Woodall, a crack automotive reporter of Reuters’ Detroit bureau. Woodall was in Chattanooga yesterday to cover the hiring of 800 new workers at the Volkswagen plant. While on the ground in Chattanooga, he learned about the surreptitious passing around of signature cards. “The UAW has not told the German automaker about its effort to collect signatures,” Woodall was told. The UAW has not even approached all hourly workers.
The matter became semi-public during a closed-door meeting between employees and VW executives at the Chattanooga plant yesterday. During the meeting, workers asked VW executives, including VWoA CEO Jonathan Browning, about the UAW’s efforts. Browning gave milquetoast party line, saying that UAW representation is up to the workers. Then, says Reuters, “one worker, addressing the crowd, said the plant did not need a union, which was met with loud applause and cheers.”
“Not too many people around here want a union,” Woodall was told by a worker who was at the meeting.
Last December, the UAW had given up immediate plans to organize the transplants, and said it would shift its efforts to direct talks with German, Japanese and Korean automakers with U.S. factories. The UAW also hoped it would get support from the German metal workers union IG Metall. These talks must not have been fruitful.
The timing of the organizing efforts is horrendous. It’s not that jobs are imperiled in Chattanooga. In January, the Chattanooga plant hired 200 new workers. Yesterday, Volkswagen announced the creation of 800 new jobs in Chattanooga. There is very little the unions can offer the workers in return for their union fee. At Volkswagen, a new hire is paid $14.50 per hour, even during training. Within three years, pay rises to $19.50 per hour. Says Reuters:
“A General Motors Co spokesman said the average pay for entry-level GM workers is $17.50 an hour. Veteran workers at GM make an average of $29 per hour.”
A Volkswagen worker receives additional shift pay, there are quarterly performance bonuses, a choice of medical plans, and a host of other benefits. Visits to the on-site doctor are free, a gym is open 24/7. A company lease program is so attractive that half of the cars on the employee parking lot are already Volkswagens, coexisting in harmony with Detroit iron.
Nobody knows how successful the UAW is in collecting signatures. From what we are hearing in Chattanooga, people are not falling over themselves to sign. If the stealth attack fails, it could be the end of the UAW. Says Reuters:
“UAW President Bob King has said organizing U.S. plants run by foreign automakers, known in the industry as transplants, is crucial for the union’s survival. After three decades of declining membership, the UAW faces a financial crunch that has been exacerbated by the U.S. economic downturn. This has forced America’s richest union to sell assets and dip into its strike fund to pay for activities.”