The NLRB election at VW in Chattanooga came down to a narrow vote, made in the context of serious interference by third parties intent on seeing the UAW lose. With 89% turnout, the result turned on the votes of 44 workers, less than 3% of the eligible workforce. Cue the schadenfreude and self loathing. While a grave disappointment, this is not the end. This is just the beginning.
As the present UAW secretary-treasurer, and presumptive next president, Dennis Williams put it:
"We're not leaving Chattanooga," said Williams, who likely will be elected to a four-year term as president in June. "It took seven years to organize Ford, and I will be around for at least another five."
That organizing campaign culminated in what's been called Battle of the Overpass, where Ford Service Department, aka hired thugs, men beat down Richard Franksteen, the UAW's Ford organizing director, in full view of the press, and pushed another UAW staffer off the pedestrian overpass to the rails 30 feet below. Sort of puts things into context, huh?
In the grand scheme of things, the threats made by outside parties during the VW organizing campaign, and NLRB election, in Tennessee pale in comparison.
The Battle of the Overpass in 1937 was not the first time that actual, physical, violence had been employed against workers trying to organize. Nor was it the worst. Ignoring the outright massacres: Homestead, Ludlow, Matewan, and Blair Mountain
The organizing campaign had started five years earlier with the Ford Hunger March on the same factory complex, ending in the killing of four, and the wounding of another nearly two dozen. What happened at VW was awful, and wrong, but it was not, by far, the worst that could have happened. If the men and women who had just watched their comrades be shot down, could get up and do it again, surely this isn't the end for the organizing campaign at VW.
"Do you really want to bring in a 3rd Party?"
One of the more shocking aspects of what has happened in Tennessee has been that the anti-union campaign has been entirely organized by outside groups. Across the Chattanooga area, anti-union billboards have been popping up:
Workerfreedom.org? Actually a front for Grover Norquist and his ATR, a DC based special interest group.
WorkplaceChoice.org? Actually a front for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, again a DC based special interest group.
What makes this all the more galling is that it is standard union busting practice to try to dissuade workers from joining unions by claiming that they are a third party group acting to protect their own interests, not those of workers. Which of course is the responsibility of management.
In the wake of this narrow loss, it may appear that all is lost. It is not.
First, the UAW is unlikely to take this sitting down. A challenge to the results based upon outside interference would already appear to be in the offing.This is a hard sell, because there is no real precedent for acting based upon outside groups biasing the results of an election.
Second, even if there is no challenge, NLRB rules require a cooling off period of a year before another election can be held. Nonetheless, this would require boots on the ground to restart the whole process, including collecting new, signed cards from workers for another election.
Third, there's the possibility of a loophole to this time frame. The German autoworker's IG Metall was apparently displeased that the UAW didn't close the deal. IG Metall was instrumental in making sure VW's public statements matched their private conduct. They may decide top ditch the UAW in favor of another union. In the US, the IUE-CWA (International Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America) has represented workers at auto plants. Outside this, IG Metall would be talking about working with an unknown quantity. This is likely a non-starter, because doing this would poison any possibility for concerted action with the UAW and GM-owned Opel and Ford in Germany.
Finally, and this is certain. VW's global works councils just announced that it will act to establish a local works council at the Tennessee plant:
Volkswagen's works council said it would press on with efforts to set up labor representation at its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant, undeterred by a workers' vote against any such step involving the United Auto Workers union (UAW).The understanding has always been that it is against US law for an works council to be established absent union representation, because this would represent an employer dominated body in violation of the NLRA. The Electromation case refers to this same section of the NLRA, but it is unclear whether it outright prohibits works councils, as the decision centered on a different form of non-union workplace representation. The decision of VW's global works council (note that this is not the company itself) to move forward with establishing a works council is a gutsy move that invites legal challenge. Ironically, this challenge is most likely to come from the outside, anti-union, groups.
"The outcome of the vote, however, does not change our goal of setting up a works council in Chattanooga," Gunnar Kilian, secretary general of VW's works council, said in a statement on Sunday, adding that workers continued to back the idea of labor representation at the plant.
The UAW is likely to see this establishment of a works council as a positive development. In fact, it's highly likely that the German union IG Metall has orchestrated this development in support of their American brethren. See, in Europe, and in Germany in particular, much of union's finances are supported by the works council rather than direct support from workers. If this works council survives legal challenge, it likely is a far more detrimental outcome for Corker and company than a simple UAW victory at VW would have been.
The Works Council Explained
Works councils are not unions, nor are they workers' councils. In the German version, there is a very strict delineation between the role of the union and works council. Shop floor issues (safety, general working conditions, consultation on changes in production) are handled by the works council. Negotiation of wages and benefits is handled by labor unions, well above the level of the individual facility. In general, minimum wages in Germany are not set by the state, instead they are negotiated at the sectoral level by the representatives of labor, aka unions, and the employer's federation, encompassing most firms in sector.
The American practice of pattern bargaining, where the UAW will conclude an agreement with whichever of the Big Three is chosen as strike target, and then seeks to replicate this agreement across the industry as a whole, is not entirely dissimilar. As a matter of practice, for the most part the leadership of the works council and the labor union overlap. An important benefit of this is that German law requires the employer bear the entire cost of the operation of the works council. This includes salary for full time works council representatives, of which a facility the size of VW-Chattanooga would have around 15. In essence, the works council takes most of the task we associate with a union shop steward in the US, and transposes this to the works council. Really, most of the tasks we associate with a union local in the US are handled by the works council. Save negotiation on wages and benefits. That is handled by the equivalent of the international union.
All of this is very useful in a right to work situation, because it mitigates the impact of lost revenue from freeloaders not paying their union dues. This would be damn useful in right to work states, which unfortunately not includes much of industrial heartland of the auto industry in the Great Lakes region. In short, there's a real advantage to having a works council, even if there isn't a traditional union in the workplace.
Mr. President, Take it Easy on the Working Man
Interpretation of the NLRA by an administrative law judge is what has halted the development of works councils in the US. I believe that there is room for action through executive order here.
There is a proud history of executive orders being used to further social progress when Congress refused to act. Prior to the Second World War, FDR signed EO 8802 which required that firms involved in defense industries do not discriminate against African-American workers. In the past week, the President signed an executive order raising the pay for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour.
Because the US government purchases so much from private companies, there are relatively few employers who can not be brought to account through executive orders. I would submit that if President Obama wants to have a lasting impact that an executive order permitting, if not requiring, the establishment of elected works councils at employers above a certain threshhold, would do more to counter the abuse of American workers than almost any other action. Moreover, I think that an executive order to this effect would set the ground for Congressional action. The anti-labor caucus has always been one to call out labor unions as third parties, let them explain how they square this position with an attempt to organize democratic (note little d) representation for workers limited to shopfloor issues.