February 15, 2014

Update: AP Revision to VW-Chattanooga Story Laments UAW’s Loss of ‘Potential Watershed Moment’

Following revisions to initial stories at the Associated Press, aka the Adminstration’s Press, can be a revealing if sometimes tedious exercise.

A case in point is how reporters Tom Krisher and Erik Schelzig, who are both more than likely represented by the News Media Guild in their jobs at the wire service, changed the tone of their second report following the rejection by employees at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant of representation by the United Auto Workers union. And speaking of changed tones, UAW President Bob King suddenly moved from conciliatory to confrontational in the 3-1/2 hours between the first and second AP reports.

Let’s compare the two reports’ headlines and their opening two and three paragraphs, respectively (bolds are mine throughout this post):

VWchattanoogaNoUAW

11:17 p.m. Friday (excerpted at this NewsBusters post early this morning; AP’s flushes original reports at its national site down the memory hole once revisions appear; the older version can still be found here, but that may change)

VW WORKERS AT TENNESSEE PLANT REJECT UNION

Workers at a Volkswagen factory in Tennessee have voted against union representation, a devastating loss that derails the United Auto Workers union’s effort to organize Southern factories.

The 712-626 vote released late Friday stunned many labor experts who expected a UAW win because Volkswagen tacitly endorsed the union and even allowed organizers into the Chattanooga factory to make sales pitches.

2:52 a.m. Saturday

UAW FALLS 87 VOTES SHORT OF MAJOR VICTORY IN SOUTH

Just 87 votes at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee separated the United Auto Workers union from what would have been its first successful organization of workers at a foreign automaker in the South.

Instead of celebrating a potential watershed moment for labor politics in the region, UAW supporters were left crestfallen by the 712-626 vote against union representation in the election that ended Friday night.

The result stunned many labor experts who expected a UAW win because Volkswagen tacitly endorsed the union and even allowed organizers into the Chattanooga factory to make sales pitches.

The first report’s headline and opening paragraph represented the real news, namely that workers rejected union representation in an election. The second report completely changes the focus to a lament about how the UAW came so close.

It would be interesting to see if Krisher and Schelzig had “victory!” verbiage prepared in advance. The discussion of a “watershed moment for labor politics” in a report about a loss which they described as “devastating” in their first report would seem to indicate that they had it in reserve and decided to use it, even in defeat.

As to King’s attitude change, here is how the two AP reports compare:

11:17 p.m. Friday

King, however, stuck to statements he made earlier that the union would seek a vote and respect any decision made by workers.

“While we certainly would have liked a victory for workers here, we deeply respect the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council, Volkswagen management and IG Metall for doing their best to create a free and open atmosphere for workers to exercise their basic human right to form a union,” King said in a statement.

2:52 a.m. Saturday

After 53 percent of the workers voted against his union, King said he was outraged at what he called “outside interference” in the election. He wouldn’t rule out challenging the outcome with the National Labor Relations Board.

“It’s never happened in this country before that the U.S. senator, the governor, the leader of the House, the legislature here, threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with a loss of product,” King said. “We’ll look at all our options in the next few days.”

As far as I can tell, no one threatened anyone.

Republican Volunteer State Senator Bob Corker did tell reporters on Wednesday, according to a Reuters report, that he had “been ‘assured’ that if workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in his hometown of Chattanooga reject United Auto Worker representation, the company will reward the plant with a new product to build.”

That’s not a threat. As I observed last night, if Corker’s statement is true, there isn’t any good reason why he shouldn’t be allowed to say it.

In the first report, the AP reporters noted that local UAW officials were considering challenging the results, but that King wasn’t going along with the idea. It would appear that the union chief saw his militancy bona fides slipping away, and is now singing from the sore losers’ hymnal.

AP’s second report did contain what should be a useful contribution to the national labor relations discussion:

VW wanted a German-style “works council” in Chattanooga to give employees a say over working conditions. The company says U.S. law won’t allow it without an independent union.

Most people don’t know that the U.S. government, in what may really be yet another example of regulatory overreach based on a vaguely written law, prohibits all such efforts, as noted in a September Bloomberg column by James Sherk:

How Union Law Hurts a Nonunion Auto Plant

… German law requires “works councils” in which management and labor groups meet to collaboratively sort out workplace issues. Consequently, there is a works council at every Volkswagen plant — except the one in Chattanooga. Now, under pressure from IG Metall, the German union, Volkswagen AG (VOW)’s headquarters has decided it wants a works council in the U.S., too.

But there’s a hitch. U.S. labor laws prohibit companies from discussing working conditions with employee representatives — unless they belong to outside unions. In the 1930s, Congress feared businesses would create bogus “company unions” to keep union organizers at bay, so it banned “management-dominated” labor organizations.

This outlaws even innocuous employee-involvement programs. For example, Webcor Packaging Corp., based in Flint, Michigan, created a council of elected employees and appointed managers to suggest improvements to its work rules, wages and benefits. The company wanted their employees’ input, yet the government ordered the council disbanded. If American workers want a voice on the job, they must speak through a union.

Its wish for ongoing worker-management dialogue explains why VW management thought allowing the UAW to organize its plant would be a good idea.

Though they likely have no problem with such a dialogue, the majority of the plant’s workers told the company that they wouldn’t accept union membership as a requirement for having it take place.

The legal or regulatory relic of a prior era which prevents worker-management communications should be relegated to history’s dustbin. If that were the case, VW and its workers could have gotten what both parties clearly want without having to try to invite the UAW in to make it happen. In that sense, though the union is the most obvious loser, no one has really “won.”

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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