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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Nov 18, 2014, 4:54 pm

At Chattanooga Volkswagen Plant, Workers Finally Win a Different Kind of Union

BY Will Craft

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Despite the failed union vote in February, Chattanooga has become a testing ground for new organizing strategies.   (Volkswagen Group America)

After a harsh anti-union campaign and a failed union vote, some workers at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee will finally be allowed to be represented by a union—more than one, if they so choose. 

Volkswagen recently introduced a new policy that allows allows a variety of unions different tiers of representational rights based on the percentage of the workforce that sign up to become members of the union, the New York Times reported last week. The unions will have different representational responsibilities based on how many employees are members of the union. And, as the Detroit Free Press reports, because the company policies now allow for workers to be represented by multiple unions, the United Auto Workers (UAW) are not the only union vying to represent Chattanooga Volkswagen workers: another organization called the American Council of Employees is also hoping to sign up workers.

The policy follows an unsuccessful vote in February to approve the UAW as the sole union representing the workers. The campaign was marred by an unprecedented level of involvement from local and state politicians. 

Volkswagen’s new policy addresses some of the concerns that workers voiced about the UAW. With the new rules, as long as at least 15 percent of the workforce are members, then the union will have some level of representation. According to the Free Press, if a union has 15 percent membership, then the union can use conference space in the factory and meet with Volkswagen human resources once a month. At 30 percent, the union can meet quarterly with members of the Chattanooga Executive Committee; at 45 percent, the union can meet bi-weekly with HR and monthly with the executive committee. 

Some critics of the move say it’s not enough. Detlef Wetzel, the head of the German auto-workers union, recently issued a statement demanding that the plant honor the UAW as the majority union—a move still hotly contested by right-to-work groups

The fact that multiple unions are now vying for workers' membership (and dues money) could prove to be chaotic on the shop floor. Still, the fact that workers will now have any level of representation may represent a step forward not only for VW employees, but for the idea of “minority” or “members-only” unionism in the U.S. Many unions have opted not to pursue such campaigns due to the amount of resources they require, with no guarantee that they will ever be able to turn a majority of workers in a given workplace into dues-paying members.  

Since workers at VW—and at many workplaces around the country—who want to become union members don’t have much of an alternative at this point, the fact that unions like the UAW are slowly taking steps towards embracing minority unions may prove to be an important development for organized labor.

Will Craft is a fall 2014 intern with In These Times, and is a political science major at The University of Chicago. He has previously worked for The Cancer Letter and The Triple Helix. He is also a devout member of Le Vorris &Vox, the University of Chicago circus. He is on twitter @craftworksxyz.

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