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Volkswagen changes policy to embrace "minority unions"

Jeremy Sprinkle
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UAW welcomes change

International Business Times reported this week that German automaker Volkswagen will recognize unions at its Chattanooga plant even without majority support:

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) union said Wednesday it is ready to work with Volkswagen under the automaker’s newly announced policy of allowing any labor group to represent workers at its sole U.S. factory. The UAW is trying to become the exclusive union representative for the Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant where the Passat sedan is manufactured, but it lost a key vote in February, when 712 of the plant’s 1,338 voting employees opposed the union’s collective bargaining authority.

“We have questions about this policy, which we'll work through in discussions with management,” Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer, said in an email after Volkswagen’s announcement. “But this is a step forward in building stronger relations between management and employees.”

Volkswagen’s policy change allows so-called minority unions, in which only some workers agree to union representation and pay corresponding dues. After years of failed attempts, the new policy represents the UAW’s best shot at gaining footholds in foreign-owned auto plants operating in the American South, including Mercedes-Benz in Vance, AlabamaNissan in Canton, Mississippi; and Toyota in Buffalo, West Virginia. The UAW has seen its membership decline over the decades, and minority union representation may be its best bet in the anti-union South.

Under its new policy any labor group that garners support from at least 15 percent of workers can use factory facilities to post announcements and hold regular meetings with the plant’s human resources department. Groups that collect at least 45 percent support would be able to meet directly with plant managers every two weeks. While the UAW would be a traditional choice for collective bargaining representation, the American Council of Employees, a group founded by Volkswagen’s Chattanooga factory workers who oppose UAW representation, would also vie to represent workers under the new policy.

North Carolina State University professor of labor history, David Zonderman, is quoted in the article saying the policy shift by Volkswagen is likely the result of pressure by the powerful IG Metall union in Germany, which represents Volkswagen workers and has complained that the company plant in the South cannot remain the only VW factory in the world without a union.

Despite its narrow loss in February, in a sign the union would not turn its back on workers in Chattanooga who did vote to have a union on their side, UAW announced in July the formation of Local 42 - a so-called "minority union" because it represents a minority of the workforce that supports it without being the exclusive bargaining agent.

Minority unionism has had success in North Carolina, as Professor Zonderman explained to the IBT:

“Minority unions can, if they’re run well on the ground, have some small positive track record,” said Zonderman, who points to modest successes of a minority union at Cummins Engine plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Earlier this year the minority union represented by United Electrical Workers Local 150 won a raise for all factory workers despite minority union representation. “They managed to get the community to support the move,” Zonderman added.

Read more about Volkswagen's policy shift on union representation at its Chattanooga plant.