Labor Voices: Elections don’t matter to Volkswagen

Gary Casteel

Free and fair elections are the hallmark of our democracy — except at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In December 2015, the skilled-trades employees at Volkswagen’s only North American plant voted overwhelmingly — by a margin of 71 percent — to designate a UAW local union to represent them for the purpose of collective bargaining. That same month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the election’s results.

What happened next was illegal, unethical and shameful. Volkswagen refused to come to the bargaining table. In turn, the local union filed charges stipulating that the company was violating U.S. labor law.

In a unanimous decision, the NLRB in August 2016 agreed with the local union and ordered Volkswagen to bargain with the skilled-trades employees. The agency even instructed the company to communicate the following message to workers: “We will not fail and refuse to recognize and bargain with United Auto Workers Local 42 as the exclusive collective-bargaining representative of the employees in the bargaining unit.”

Still, Volkswagen again thumbed its nose at the federal government. The company defied the NLRB and challenged it in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — despite the fact that the courts have consistently upheld the right of workers to organize in distinct bargaining units.

As it turns out, Volkswagen was playing the worst kind of politics. The company’s strategy: Keep the matter knotted up in the court system and hope for Donald Trump to be elected president — and for the NLRB to be overhauled with new appointees.

In November 2016, Volkswagen got its wish: Trump was elected after losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College. From there, the White House embarked on a process to reshape the NLRB in a way that has proven hostile to working men and women.

Fast-forward 13 months. During an 11-day period in December 2017, Volkswagen coordinated with union-avoidance attorneys and new NLRB members appointed by Trump to try to overturn the free and fair election among Chattanooga’s skilled-trades employees two years earlier.

In a complex legal maneuver, Volkswagen managed to get the case remanded from the federal appeals court back to the NLRB — violating commitments the company made to the UAW and the German trade union IG Metall to abide by a court decision that surely would have favored employees. As of today, the matter remains in limbo at the NLRB — which supervised the late-2015 election and certified the results.

Meanwhile, members of Congress and the NLRB’s inspector general reportedly are investigating Trump appointee William Emanuel over potential conflicts of interest related to decisions he made in cases involving his former employer, the union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson — which happens to be Volkswagen’s legal representation. The whole thing is a mess.

What does all this mean for Volkswagen’s skilled-trades employees? Unfortunately, their voices remain unheard, for now. They’re understandably angry and disappointed. But they remain committed to achieving their goal of meaningful representation in the workplace — and the UAW remains committed to helping them get there.

Bottom line: It’s not too late for Volkswagen to abide by the NLRB’s earlier decision. The company should accept the results of the 2015 election and join hard-working men and women at the bargaining table in Chattanooga — the only Volkswagen facility in the world without employee representation.

To do otherwise is inconsistent with Volkswagen’s principles of social responsibility.

Gary Casteel is secretary-treasurer of the UAW and director of the international union’s transnational department.


Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.