November 22, 2014 will be the 21st anniversary of the end of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) strike at American Airlines. This is significant to me for several reasons– one is because I was there, in the middle, and I remember it like it was yesterday. The second is because recent history reminds me of the power of external influences on the labor- management process in the United States.
Let's start with Nov. 21, 1993, at American Airlines. After 20 months of negotiating, APFA went on strike for five days before President Clinton took the unusual step of brokering an agreement between the union and the airline to submit the labor dispute to binding arbitration.
Clinton announced the end of the impasse at an afternoon news conference that began barely 20 minutes after the airline and the flight attendants signed off on a plan pulled together by top Administration officials in just a few hours. He said the resolution, which put the contract dispute before a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator, was intended to allow Thanksgiving holiday travel to return to normal. "I want to encourage all the people involved in the American Airlines family to now return to work together without any bitterness and with a spirit of mutual respect as they attempt to work through these issues in binding arbitration," Clinton said.
I vividly remember the moment when our then-CEO, Robert Crandall, made a company-wide public address telling us of this development. In that moment, I felt slightly cheated. I did not feel that either side was provided the opportunity to fully exercise our rights and have our voices heard. Although I was relieved that I could return to some sort of normalcy, at the same time in my gut this presidential intervention in the process felt wrong and unnatural.
So, fast forward 20 years later. I began to watch the United Auto Workers initiative in Chattanooga to unionize Volkswagen in what would reportedly be a German Works Council type structure.
Having been both a union member and a member of management in large corporations, I'm always interested in how these scenarios play out in other organizations. So, I began watching the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN, and I saw again the power of politically and ideologically driven external forces on the labor-management process.
In brief, this is how the UAW/VW story unfolded in Chattanooga in 2013 and why it struck a chord with me:
- Volkswagen and the UAW explore using the German Works Council concept at the VW plant in Chattanooga. Implementation under U.S labor law would require the employees to be represented by a union.
- The UAW conducts an organizing campaign. Both pro-union and anti-union forces across the country see this as a pivotal moment, especially in the South. Although VW remains neutral and the parties try to keep the campaign local to the facility, outside forces quickly come to bear.
- Anti-union forces, including right-to-work proponents and shadow groups tied to national political movements, mount a major fear campaign, pulling out all the media stops to forecast negative consequences to the local and state economy if the plant organizes.
- Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam, and state officials reportedly declare right up to the moment of vote that: VW would move work to Mexico or elsewhere; governments would threaten to withdraw tax incentives; and suppliers would be less likely to come to Tennessee if the plant organizes. VW consistently denies any intention to move work elsewhere based on the outcome of the vote.
- Some people involved at the local level also see national UAW and other union support as an unwelcome outside force interfering with their “right to work.” They also object to the influence of VW headquarters, which they see as a foreign manufacturer un-aligned with American right-to-work values.
- The vote for representation fails 712 to 626. I viewed this as a remarkably close vote, especially in the South, and one that did not seem to me to reflect a major sentiment either for or against.
Even though there was a vote– normally the end of the story– this saga is still unfolding. VW continues voicing its support for working with organized labor, and the UAW has announced the formation of a voluntary, ‘members-only’ union at the facility.
As I look back on the events in Chattanooga, I can’t help feeling that, just as outside forces somehow robbed me and my local colleagues of our free choice, outside forces also somehow have infringed on people’s ability to have an informed and free choice about their desire for representation. From my perspective today as a neutral consultant, counseling both management and labor leaders, there is that niggling sense of an over-reach from the long arm of political force, something run amok with the sense of fairness, something gone missing from the American value of free choice.
The Chattanooga election involved a mere 1,500 workers, yet I wonder: did either party feel that it had 'won'? How do you think this chain of events made employees feel about the importance of their votes and the power of their voices? And, what were the thought processes of those who exerted political force to influence the turn of events?
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Did labor-management history repeat itself?
Vicki Kelsey is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group and President/CEO of VKAL, Inc. Vicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.