UAW Win At VW Illustrates The “Micro- Unit” Strategy

You have probably heard by now that the United Auto Workers union (“UAW”) recently won an election among the “skilled trades” employees at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. This victory has been described as a first big win for the UAW at an auto manufacturing plant in the south. Time will tell how significant that outcome proves to me.

Meanwhile, this election is an example of a danger that we have been describing since the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) changed its rules regarding the selection of bargaining units. In summary, for years the NLRB generally followed a set of rules and presumptions that guided the description of bargaining units, and thus of who can vote in a union election. The parties often litigated the subject of bargaining unit description because the determination of whether a particular group of employees is or is not included in the unit could of course impact the outcome of the election.

Now the NLRB has held that a unit can petition to represent a bargaining unit that consists of any rational grouping of employees. Since that new rule was implemented, challenges to unit descriptions have been futile.

How did all this play out in the recent VW election? You probably recall that the UAW lost an election among the production and maintenance employees as a whole.

This time around the UAW did not seek to represent the entire group of about 1,450 production and maintenance employees. Rather, the UAW sought, and obtained, an election only among the 164 skilled trades employees. Before the NLRB’s change in rules relative to bargaining unit descriptions, VW could have challenged the unit description and sought a plant-wide production and maintenance unit. The group as a whole had already shown that it did not desire UAW representation.

Under the new rule, any challenge to the bargaining unit sought by the UAW would have been futile. The union got an election in the unit it sought. Apparently, the skilled trades employees were dissatisfied with certain conditions and were more easily persuaded to vote in favor of joining the UAW. Interestingly, and unlike with the previous election, VW management campaigned against the union in this election.

So the NLRB’s new rule that allows a union to select a sub-set of the employer’s workforce and obtain an election among a smaller group of employees clearly helped the UAW get its foot in the door of the VW plant in Chattanooga. Employers who do not want that happening to them would do well to assess and address departments in their workforce where trouble may be brewing.