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New Volkswagen Policy OKs Interactions With Unions At U.S. Factory

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on June 12, 2013. The automaker announced a new policy Wednesday that would allow interaction with labor unions at the plant.
Erik Schelzig

Automaker Volkswagen announced today a new policy that would allow interaction with labor unions at its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., but specifically excluded collective bargaining from what it's calling the Community Organization Engagement policy.

In a statement Wednesday, Volkswagen said the new policy would allow a "constructive dialogue" with groups, including labor unions.

The policy sets up three levels of membership, which Nashville Public Radio explains: "The policy says unions have to prove they have support of at least 15 percent of employees. Depending on how big that group is, the union can gain access to the plant to post announcements. If they have enough members, they can meet regularly with VW management."

The company said an external auditor would verify membership.

The United Auto Workers, which lost an important vote at the Chattanooga plant in February, welcomed today's announcement, calling it "a step forward in building stronger relations between management and employees." The union added that it now represents a majority of workers at the plant.

That the UAW would welcome the news is unsurprising. As NPR's Bill Chappell noted in February:

"The Volkswagen plant's workers represented a possible lifeline to the UAW, which has seen its membership plunge from 1.5 million workers in 1979 to less than 400,000 in recent years. That's partly because of U.S. carmakers' layoffs, and partly because foreign automakers have opened new plants in the South, where tradition and laws have made it tough for the union to build momentum."

But today's Volkswagen statement noted, "This policy may not be used by any group or organization to claim or request recognition as the exclusive representative of any group of employees for the purposes of collective bargaining."

But The New York Times reports that the automaker has been under pressure from IG Metall, its labor union in Germany, to grant the UAW recognition in Chattanooga. The Wall Street Journal adds:

"The new policy could allow the auto maker to accomplish its goal of establishing a German-style 'works council' where workers and managers set up the rules and operations for the plant, but might prevent the UAW from gaining full bargaining control at the plant because of the presence of smaller unions."

One of those smaller groups is the American Council of Employees, a group of workers opposed to the UAW. Its members told The Journal that the policy "levels the playing field" for other unions that seek to represent workers at the plant.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who previously opposed the UAW's bid to come to the state, told The Associated Press that he didn't "think there's really any new news in this beyond what they said before, but we need to let them speak for themselves on this."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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