published Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Berman: Getting what you pay for, UAW style

By Rick Berman
Factory workers perform diagnostics on a Passat in the assembly section of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in this file photo.
Factory workers perform diagnostics on a Passat in the assembly section of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in this file photo.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

The reasons behind the United Auto Workers' campaign to unionize the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga can be summed up in four words: Black Lake Country Club.

The resort is the UAW's hallowed ground, a mecca of sorts for the union's leaders. But it's nowhere near Chattanooga. It's not even in Tennessee. It's actually almost a thousand miles away in northern Michigan. And without a fresh infusion of dues money from the potential union members in the Chattanooga plant and other presently nonunion auto employees, this playground for the union's power brokers won't be able to keep the lights on forever.

Black Lake is a symbol of the UAW's cash crisis. After decades of membership losses -- the UAW's rolls are down 75 percent since 1980 -- the union, like their golf club, is in a financial free-fall. The only thing that has kept the union afloat has been its bailout from federal taxpayers following the bankruptcies at two of the Big Three.

Similarly, the golf club is still standing only because of $39 million in loans from the union. The union is attempting to sell it--but unlike the auto bailouts, they can't find a buyer (or a taxpayer) willing to pay them what they think it's worth. Absent that buyer, their only recourse is to recoup the course's operating costs by drawing on more union dues.

Most of the UAW's current members have never seen the golf club's swanky amenities, even though they get a discount to play there (air fare not included). It essentially exists for the benefit of the union's officials. Those same union officials are now trying to force the VW Chattanooga plant's employees to effectively finance this fiasco. Beyond the golf club, the UAW's pension plans are under-funded to the tune of $33 billion. Without the new blood from the generally younger employees at Southern auto pants, the gap between the union's receipts in and payments out will only grow. Combined with its membership crisis, the pension problem might even bankrupt the union before Black Lake.

The UAW's dire straits are evident for all to see. But they also put into context the unions' underhanded strategy to make unionization at the Chattanooga plant a reality. It's no secret that the union wants to avoid an actual representation election. The UAW's President, Bob King, is on record as saying that an "election process is more divisive." He also stated that an actual private vote on whether to unionize isn't "in the best interests of Tennessee." Really.

Instead, the UAW is undermining standard democratic procedures to rig the outcome and ensure that they emerge victorious. It's using a process known as a "card check," which, if VW agrees to abide by the outcome, allows the UAW to bypass elections by having employees publicly sign cards saying they want to join the union.

In practice, this is an illegitimate procedure that strips employees of their right to a secret ballot election, while giving the union a greater ability to strong-arm employees into binding agreements.

At least eight of the plant's employees have already complained that the UAW did exactly that to extract their signatures. Their situation never would have developed if the Employee Rights Act (ERA) passed Congress. The ERA, which was introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch ensures that no workplace could be unionized without a guaranteed secret ballot election.

Without such legal protection, however, the affected employees have instead been left to fend for themselves in court. Their own free choice was constrained against their will; now their only hope is for the courts to rule in their favor. But win or lose their case, they shouldn't bet on getting a tee time at Black Lake any time soon.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Richard Berman is the executive director at the Center for Union Facts, which also operates

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