Politics & Policy

Why Card Check Matters, Chattanooga Edition

Volkswagen workers rejected unionization when they could make their views known honestly.

On Friday, workers in a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted in a secret ballot to reject joining the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), which had for months claimed that it had public attestations from a majority of workers that they wanted to unionize.

Under current labor laws, workers can unionize two ways: directly via card check, or through a secret ballot. The unionization process begins with union officials or workers trying to get members of the bargaining unit at the firm to sign their names on cards affirming their desire to unionize, a public process. If 30 percent of the workforce signs the cards, an election can go ahead, but if a majority have signed, the employer can choose to recognize the union, and it’s formed without a secret ballot. If the employer declines or the card process won between 30 and 50 percent support, a secret ballot election is held that requires majority support.

Under so-called card-check legislation that Democrats have tried to push through Congress in recent years, 50 percent of the workforce having signed a card would automatically create a union without a secret ballot — regardless of the employer’s wishes.

Because of allegations that the UAW was intimidating workers into signing cards, VW asked that a secret ballot be held. Under the “card check” regime labor advocates envision, in other words, if the UAW had been right that the majority of workers had signed cards, the unionization that failed on a secret ballot would have gone ahead.

In September, Gary Casteel, the director of the UAW in Tennessee, claimed that the UAW had cards signed by the 2,400 workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant. The UAW said it wished to certify the union based on the alleged majority of signatures obtained via card check, saying that a secret ballot vote following the card process would be too “divisive.” Such a process could only go forward if Volkswagen, the employer, agreed to it.

However, before the card-check procedure could be completed, eight Volkswagen workers filed charges against the UAW with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, claiming that the union’s card-check drive was misleading and coercive.

In the employees’ affidavits obtained by National Review Online, the employees said that the UAW “solicited, enticed, and/or demanded VW employees’ signatures by unlawful means including misrepresentations, coercion, threats, and promises.” In one instance, union officials allegedly offered free tickets to a nearby amusement park to one employee and his entire family if he signed the card.

The eight workers contacted the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which helped them draft their affidavits, in mid October 2013, the same time employees within the Chattanooga plant began circulating an anti-union petition that reached 611 signatures by October 25.

Following the filing of the charges and the petition, the Volkswagen board of the Chattanooga plant said on February 3 it wanted to hold secret-ballot elections, against the UAW’s initial wishes.

“We don’t know why exactly Volkswagen decided to have a secret ballot, but we think the board of Volkswagen agreed with the UAW behind the scenes, perhaps relying on the UAW’s assertions that they had enough votes,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation tells NRO. 

Previous collusion between Volkswagen and the UAW led Mix and workers opposed to unionization to believe that VW and the UAW were working together to unionize the workers.

VW had welcomed UAW representatives to the Chattanooga plant speak to employees in the factory over the course of the unionization effort, and a “neutrality agreement” signed between VW and the UAW on January 27 — only 18 days before the February 14 election — stipulated that they would work enhance “VW’s cost advantage,” or work together to keep employee wages and benefits low enough for production costs to remain competitive. Furthermore, Volkswagen directors had allegedly indicated that they would not expand the Chattanooga facility and would withhold beginning production of a new SUV platform from the plant if the workers did not unionize.

In VW’s home country of Germany, union representatives have seats on the Volkswagen board of directors. The company seems to have pro-union sympathies that may have influenced VW’s actions in Chattanooga, Mix says.​

But the workers’ protests that they’d been intimidated forced VW to grant them the protection of a secret ballot. “I think that if those eight employees hadn’t filed charges, the card check might have worked,” Mix says. “To this day, nobody has seen the ‘majority’ of cards the UAW claimed to have.”

When the vote finally came, workers rejected the UAW’s attempt to unionize by 53–47 margin, 712 votes to 626.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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