Volkswagen US still driving toward unionization

volkswagenBack in February, German automaker Volkswagen’s U.S. division attempted to unionize their own workers in Tennessee, the center of union-free US auto manufacturing. That effort was thwarted by illegal interference by anti-union politicians and threats of cancellation of state subsidies and incentives. But it didn’t stop the company’s pro-union management.

As I explained in February, most major German corporations are big fans of cooperating closely with unions (at least far more than their American or British counterparts). This cooperation increases social-corporate harmony and it encourages win-win negotiations instead of everyone trying to bleed everyone else dry. This tradition of having unions and management work together in formalized joint committees, and (in Germany) even usually having the companies partly owned by the workers themselves to give them an official say in management and a stake in the company’s long-term health, has been a key tool for consensus-building and smoothing potential tensions over.

Despite the defeat in February, a collection of over 700 workers in Chattanooga voluntarily formed their own United Auto Workers local later in the year for the purposes of eventually unionizing the company’s labor force, as desired by management. Initially, it seemed like this might be delayed until some time well into 2015 by the setback in February and the local political opposition.

But Volkswagen is so determined to unionize its US employees over the objections of Tennessee Republicans (and to get around so-called “Right to Work” anti-union laws) that they held negotiations with the United Auto Workers in Germany to come to an arrangement to bring a union on board for its workers. Reportedly, they will be partially recognizing unionization of their Tennessee workers some time in the next few days. The UAW says that the interim deal, in place at least until a final vote to unionize (which will still have to come later), does not cover collective bargaining but does allow for a clear process of worker-management meetings, in the aforementioned German postwar tradition.

From the Wall Street Journal summary, the German approach is precisely what the company hoped to implement at minimum:

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.

The company said it is creating three tiers of representation for workers based on the percentage of hourly workers who sign up. The rule is expected to allow a UAW local that claims more than half the plant’s hourly work force has joined it to gain influence at the plant, but it also allows for other unions to set up shop.

Volkswagen said the new policy will govern its interactions with labor organizations who represent a significant percentage of factory employees. Volkswagen will use an external auditor to verify the percentage “to determine what level of engagement has been reached,” it said.
[…]
VW has a works council at most of its plants and would like to have one in the U.S. These worker-management groups set up schedules, benefits, operations and even take part in the business side of the operation. Under U.S. labor law, workers can’t participate in a works council unless they are represented by an independent union, and not a “company union.”

 
The remaining big question is whether the UAW can overcome the opposition of anti-UAW workers and Tennessee officials who are putting together a rival “union” to dilute the future bargaining power of the UAW within the Tennessee operation of Volkswagen.

VW: When management is the vanguard of the proletariat

volkswagenBeen a busy month for me so I haven’t had a chance to give the story due diligence, but if you didn’t hear: the German automaker Volkswagen’s U.S. division attempted to unionize their own workers in Tennessee.

This is unusual for a number of reasons, as I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s particularly significant coming in Tennessee, a state that has become home to a lot of foreign car manufacturers’ American branches and is a so-called “Right to Work” state. “Right to Work” laws are designed discourage unionization by changing how worker votes occur and allowing management to intimidate or pressure workers into voting against forming a union, i.e. giving workers the “right” to work outside of union (because every American must have the right to be their own David against the corporate Goliath in contract negotiations… I guess?).

So anyway, if VW employees unionize, it will automatically put pressure on Tennessee’s other foreign-based carmakers to raise wages somewhat to remain competitive and retain their workers, even if they remain non-unionized (past studies have demonstrated this effect pretty clearly), and it will probably encourage unionization drives elsewhere.
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Will “smarter” cars start snitching on us?

After a Ford exec in a panel talk raised a (supposedly) hypothetical scenario whereby the company could collect live driving data like speed and relative location from embedded GPS and other services linked back to headquarters by satellite, and noted that it would include illegal/dangerous driving behaviors, Eugene Volokh of TVC started thinking through the legal implications of such a world. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Ford could technically gather this information, and could use it to prevent injuries. For instance, if GPS data shows that someone is speeding — or the car’s internal data shows that the driver is speeding, or driving in a way suggestive of drunk driving or extreme sleepiness, and the data can then be communicated to some central location — then Ford could notify the police, so the dangerous driver can be stopped. And the possibility of such reports could deter the dangerous driving in the first place.

Ford, then, is putting extremely dangerous devices on the road. It’s clearly foreseeable that those devices will be misused (since they often are misused). Car accidents cause tens of thousands of deaths and many more injuries each year. And Ford has a means of making those dangerous devices that it distributes less dangerous; yet it’s not using them.

Sounds like a lawsuit, no? Manufacturer liability for designs that unreasonably facilitate foreseeable misuse is well-established. And the fact that the misuse may stem from negligence (or even intentional wrongdoing) on the user’s part doesn’t necessarily block liability, so long as the user misconduct is foreseeable. I should note that I’m not wild about these aspects of our tort law system, and think they should likely be trimmed back in various ways; but there is certainly ample legal doctrine out there — whether one likes it or not — potentially supporting liability in such a situation.

 

The full piece is pretty long and gears gradually toward the technical side, for legal professionals, as it progresses, but the opening sections are for a more general audience. It’s certainly thought-provoking — the idea that companies might be able to use increasingly computerized and data-rich vehicles to monitor driving behavior and report it to the police (or to insurers, or… who knows where it ends).

Might they even make the data signals go two ways so they could control someone’s vehicle to slow them if they’re speeding out of control (or aid the police in controlling it, to stop a high-speed chase for example)? After all, some of these cars already have automated lane-finders and swerve-correctors as well as numerous other safety features. But those are locally-run by the onboard systems. Does the company have an obligation to control or report its vehicles when they’re being used dangerously or illegally? If they don’t, will they be sued? Interesting (and troubling) questions from a brave new world…