Apparently, "democracy" isn't a satisfying answer to the United Auto Workers.
A week after Volkswagen autoworkers in Chattanooga, Tenn., declined to join the Detroit-based union by a vote of 712 to 626, the UAW appealed the election to the National Labor Relations Board.
The UAW claimed that "interference by politicians and outside special interest groups" skewed the vote. The main problem for the union, aside from the outcome, was that opponents exercised their First Amendment rights and stood up for workers who otherwise didn't have a voice.
Specifically, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as well as several other elected officials, spoke out against the UAW effort. Other opponents included Americans for Tax Reform and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
While a person unfamiliar with the intricacies of labor law may find the idea that a union has the ability to stifle anyone's speech preposterous, the UAW's argument has merit for employers. Federal labor law already strictly curtails what an employer can say to its employees when a union is trying to organize its business. An employer is forbidden from threating, interrogating, promising or spying on his employees during this time.
Unions, on the other hand, only violate the law if they verbally threaten or physically assault a worker. In many cases even these actions are not deemed illegal if a third party does the threatening.
Some employers, however, choose to cut deals, known as "neutrality agreements," with unions before the election. In exchange for benefits or to avoid public relations smear campaigns, an employer will not counter the union's organizing efforts.
Volkswagen entered into such a neutrality agreement with the UAW on Jan. 27. Because of the agreement, the UAW and Volkswagen essentially were on the same side. Without assistance from the outside, workers who opposed the UAW would have been drowned out by company sanctioned UAW supporters.
VW went so far as to keep employees who thought joining the UAW was a bad idea out of the plant while letting union organizers in.
Further, VW filed the petition for unionization. This is very rare in labor organizing. The automaker also helped bring a speedy election, not allowing the opposition time to make a case to the workers.
In saying no to the unionization drive, the workers bucked both their company and the UAW.
The UAW originally wanted to organize the Chattanooga plant via a card check election, where all a union needs is a majority of workers to sign cards for the union to be recognized as the representative of the employees. Card check elections can lead to intimidation and coercion of employees because they are done in the open without the protection of a secret ballot.
The election loss is another example of why card check is a poor organizing method. A majority of VW employees signed cards last year, but the February vote shows that there might have been credence to those opposed to the UAW. Eight employees, represented by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, charged that, "the UAW solicited, enticed, and/or demanded VW employees' signatures by unlawful means including misrepresentations, coercion, threats, and promises."
Regardless of the promise of benefit or the removal of a threat, Volkswagen sided with the union over workers who wanted to remain in charge of their own destiny. But in the end, the workers won.
An extended analysis of the unionization effort at Volkswagen authored by F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, will be released in the next edition of IMPACT Magazine.