Two separate labor unions are aggressively seeking to organize employees at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, TN plant. Both the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the American Council of Employees (ACE) have been pushing VW employees to sign union authorization cards in order to satisfy the requirements of VW’s Community Organization Engagement (COE) initiative, which grants labor group access to VW’s management officials depending on how many authorization cards a given union has procured.
The UAW reached the COE’s highest access level in December 2014 after presenting VW with cards signed by at least 45% of VW employees. Thus, UAW officials are allowed to meet bi-weekly with VW management. And reaching this highest access level seems to have galvanized the UAW’s organizing efforts. Mike Cantrell, the president of UAW local 42, said last week that the UAW has now collected authorization cards from more than 50% of VW’s Chattanooga employees and has asked the company to voluntarily recognize the union:
“We hope VW will accept the cards,” he said, and for the automaker to start bargaining with the UAW over issues such as pay and benefits.
Of course, Mr. Cantrell’s desire to bypass a union election is understandable. After all, the UAW lost an unopposed election in February 2014 by approximately 80 votes, in what was universally considered a major blow to its efforts to organize the labor-averse Southeastern United States.
While the UAW seems to have gained some major momentum in the last couple of months, the ACE organizing effort has certainly not gone away. Sean Moss, the president of ACE, announced that the ACE recently presented VW officials with plans for establishing a European-style “works council” at VW’s Chattanooga plant. Such “works councils” already exist at VW’s European plants and allow management officials and employees to discuss issues related to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
Moss termed it “a concept with broad strokes. It’s a starting point. I think we’ve done our homework.”
Even though Moss claimed that the ACE had done its “homework” with respect to the establishment of a “works council” in Tennessee, such a move could prove problematic under the National Labor Relations Act. Pursuant to the Electromation doctrine, an employer will run afoul of the Act if it dominates a “labor organization.” The Board will find a given group to be a “labor organization” if “(1) employees participate, (2) the group exists, at least in part, for the purpose of ‘dealing with’ employers, and (3) these dealings concern ‘conditions of work’ or concern other statutory subjects, such as grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, or hours of employment.” See, 309 N.L.R.B. at 994. Further:
[W]hen the impetus behind the formation of an organization of employees emanates from an employer and the organization has no effective existence independent of the employer’s active involvement, a finding of domination is appropriate if the purpose of the organization is to deal with the employer concerning conditions of employment. Id. at 996.
While it is currently unclear what the ACE’s proposed works council would look like, it could violate the Act if employees and managers met to discuss “conditions of work.” Thus, it will be interesting to see whether the ACE’s plan ever gets off the ground.
In any event, the continued attempts by the UAW and the ACE to organize VW’s plant in Tennessee demonstrates that big labor’s “Southern Strategy” still continues apace, despite the UAW’s loss last February. Unions are also seeking to organize plants in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, among other Southern states. And we expect them to continue to do so in the near future, as union membership in the private sector hovers near all-time lows and unions seek out new forms of revenue. Stay tuned to @LRToday, where we will continue to cover these organizing drives and other major developments in the labor space.