Volkswagen auto workers in Tennessee became the center of attention last week when they prepared to vote on unionization of their factory. Unionization is usually a major deal for the workers and the employers, but it does not always receive much media coverage, particularly when the employer is not opposed to the union. However, in this case, Tennessee’s legislators brought a lot of attention to the vote.
According to Talking Points Memo, prior to the vote, senators in Tennessee threatened to withhold tax incentives if unionization passed, suggested that Volkswagen used illegal campaign tactics, and suggested that Volkswagen would only expand production in the region if workers voted against unionizing. However, Volkswagen reportedly had a neutral to almost positive opinion of unionizing, and promised expansion of production in the area if workers did unionize. It is hard to tell who was more invested in the vote — the employees, the employer or the state’’s
As the Seattle PI reported, Volkswagen’s workers voted against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) by 86 votes. If the workers had voted to unionize, they would have been the first foreign auto factory in the south with union presence. The Tennessee Volkswagen plant is also the only Volkswagen plant without formal worker representation. The UAW President suggested there may be a challenge filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the outcome, due to the outside political influence.
National Labor Relations
In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to protect the rights of employees and employers, and to encourage collective bargaining. Under the Act, employees have the right to be either in or out of a union, and employers are restricted from interfering with employee efforts in both situations. Prohibited interference includes intimidating and threatening workers to prevent them from voting for a union, as well as creating and supporting an employer-backed and run union. Employers also cannot retaliate against employees for legally attempting to
organize, or for voting to unionize.
The NLRA was intended to create a more level playing field for employees to negotiate terms of employment, at a time when employers had almost all of the power. One of Tennessee’s senators suggested that Volkswagen used illegal campaign tactics to promote the union because the company was not opposed to the UAW’s attempt to unionize. But the UAW is a national organization and employers are allowed to support a union, just not an employer-backed and run union. In this case, it would appear that the legislature is the one who violated the NLRA, except
for the fact that the NLRA does not apply to government entities. In the end, however, the auto workers did have a say in unionizing. They voted against collective bargaining in favor of individual employment agreements and negotiations.
Whether your business is unionizing or not, if you have questions or concerns about your employment agreements, an experienced Washington employment law attorney can help.