Roy Exum: Experts Decry UAW Appeal

Sunday, February 23, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There appeared to be little hope and even less sympathy for the embattled United Auto Workers on Saturday, this just one day after the union appealed its recent loss at the Chattanooga Volkswagen assembly plant. Most experts seemed to agree that even with a Democrat-controlled National Labor Relations Board, the now-whining UAW is going to have “an uphill battle” to prove any illegal events occurred during the Feb. 12-14 election.

The UAW had spent two years trying to organize the VW employees and, even when the German manufacturing officials appeared to encourage the union officials while hindering anti-labor factions, the employees voted by a 53-47 percent margin to decline union representation. It is believed the overwhelming reason was because the UAW had little if anything to offer the Chattanooga workers.

But the UAW, stinging from the historic defeat, filed charges with the NLRB on Friday, claiming "interference by politicians and outside special interest groups" and also alleging "a coordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign conducted by politicians and outside organizations to deprive Volkswagen workers of their federally protected right to join a union."

Gary Klotz, a partner with the Detroit firm of Butzel Long, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, “They have not accused Volkswagen of doing anything wrong. In fact, Volkswagen disavowed Senator (Bob) Corker’s comments.”

And Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told the Washington Post that the NLRB may be trying to set a precedent regarding ‘union intimidation’ by a third party but that the VW vote lacks the best facts to do so.

“If I were a liberal member of the NLRB, I’d look for a real egregious case of management interference … (but) the prospects are poor here because it was third-party public officials,” he said, even after admitting he was a supporter of organized labor.

Senator Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor who was instrumental in bringing the VW plant to the job-hungry area, was one of several politicians who decried the UAW involvement in Chattanooga but the NLRB will struggle to find one outside voice speaking in behalf of Volkswagen. Every comment seemed to be pointed at the dreaded union. “How do you tell public officials they can’t speak on this subject?” queried Art Schwartz in a Wall Street Journal story.

Schwartz, president of Labor and Economics Associates in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the case “will be a tough one” for the UAW to win. “In reality it wasn’t (VW) that (the union) had to worry about … It was the overall attitude of the community towards unions.”

The union complaint to the NLRB specifically cited remarks made by Corker that he had been assured a new SUV model would be built in Chattanooga if the workers voted against the union but VW officials quickly claimed there was no connection between a union presence and the location of an SUV assembly line.

According to the Washington Post story, the UAW was running a “phone bank” during the election with employees and noticed a number of employees who had been in favor of the union “swaying more to neutral or ‘no,’” which led to the belief Corker’s comments may have had an effect. But the reporter cited another source that said about 1,000 of the 1,300 votes had already been cast when Corker made his comments.

Edward Niedermeyer, an auto industry consultant, wrote on Bloomberg News, “The UAW’s bitter complaints about political opposition to its organizing drive simply underlies the lack of pushback it got from management, the typical villain in union rhetoric.

“Those who claim that Tennessee officials unfairly affected the election seem to forget that President Barack Obama himself very publicly took the union side,” the writer added. “Obama tied himself to the UAW while doing nothing to forward a positive case for unionization.”

Niedermeyer, who contends the UAW is “in dire straits,” also wrote, “The defeat highlights the UAW’s biggest problem: It was almost impossible to make a positive case for unionization to the VW workers because of the UAW’s profoundly unfair two-tier wage structure … With old-timers still enjoying an unsustainable quality of life they enjoyed during Detroit’s glory days, and doing so on the backs of younger workers, the UAW’s oft-professed commitment to ‘solidarity’ falls apart.”

In a related story, The Associated Press reported on Saturday that the UAW’s defeat in Chattanooga leaves “The Big Three” automakers in Detroit “increasingly anxious about the 78-year old union’s future” and there is concern a failing UAW could be merged with a “more hostile” union in the future.

The UAW desperately needs to organize a foreign-car plant in the South, where eight of 14 have been built in just the last 10 years. Bob King, the outgoing UAW president, is on record as saying the union has no future if it cannot be done and the VW appeal is proof of such desperation. Union officials are also trying to organize a Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

THE WEEK’S BEST QUOTE – On Thursday South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley sent word to auto manufacturers with union representation — including General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler — not to even consider locating in her state. “It’s not something we want to see happen. We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.”

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