Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers may be closing in on a potential election at the carmaker's Chattanooga plant, and observers said the stakes are high for not just the workforce but the union and other employers in the South.
Dr. John Raudabaugh, who teaches labor law at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., said how such an election is conducted will strike at the heart of American democracy.
"It will be interesting to see if VW steps up and allows equal access" to workers by union and anti-union parties, he said.
Cornell University professor Dr. Lowell Turner, who directs The Workers Institute, said that such an election and the possibility of the set up of a German-style works council is "a chance to experiment with a new form of labor management cooperation in America.
"Given the economic problems in this country, it's exciting that we could experiment with that in Chattanooga," Turner said.
VW and the UAW have said they're in talks over a works council at the Chattanooga plant -- which would be a first at an American auto factory. Such a panel could represent blue- and white-collar employees over issues such as hours, working conditions and training.
VW has said a union is needed in the plant in order for a works council to be established under U.S. labor law. The company has works councils in nearly all its major plants worldwide.
The UAW has said it has a majority of signatures on cards of about 1,600 hourly employees, indicating they want the union to represent them. But, anti-union workers at the plant said they obtained more than 600 signatures on petitions from employees against the union.
The UAW has said that VW simply accepting its cards would be the quickest way for union to earn recognition, but that it's not opposed to an election.
A thumbs-up for the UAW would mark the union's first success at a foreign-owned Southern assembly plant after three decades of trying. It also could begin to significantly reverse four decades of declining union membership in Chattanooga's private-sector economy -- once one of the stronger cities in the South for organized labor.
Neither VW nor the UAW would comment on the prospects of an election.
Experts said either the union or VW could petition the National Labor Relations Board to supervise an election at the plant.
Raudabaugh, a former NLRB member, said the UAW could request a representation petition for an election after showing signatures from at least 30 percent of the hourly workers.
Or, he said, the company itself could file for an employer petition to determine support for a union.
Raudabaugh said that in nearly all cases, the union files the petition.
"The more interesting question is why a union would not file its own petition," he said. Raudabaugh said he thinks the likely answer would be that VW and the UAW had "a tactical reason."
"Companies file so that if the union loses, it doesn't look like they triggered the election," he said.
Turner agreed that the election initiative typically comes from the union. But, he said, he would expect that VW would not campaign against the union during the election period.
There could even be a so-called neutrality agreement between VW and the union.
"It's a statement of good faith," Turner said about such an agreement. "The employer will not campaign. They'll leave it up to the worker. It's an open and free democratic election. That's what I expect to happen in Chattanooga."
However, Raudabaugh said that if there is an election, it will be interesting to see how much time passes before the election is called and the length of the voting period.
He said an election period that's shorter than 28 or 32 days limits the ability of employees to hear pros and cons.
In Chattanooga, Raudabaugh said he's worried that VW and the UAW are "in bed with each other" and that anti-union advocates won' t be given an equal chance to state their case to workers.
Turner said the election period could be as little as two weeks, if the company and union agree.
He said what he expects to see, since VW would likely be neutral, is for "outside sources" to be active if there's an election in the form of various anti-union groups.
"It's an unusual situation," he said. "It's very rare that you get outside forces campaigning. I'm sure there will be intensive campaigning. It's one thing to have management [campaigning], but with outside forces it's a whole new ballgame."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.