VW workers reject union at Tennessee plant

A Volkswagen employee works on a vehicle at the company’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Photo provided by Volkswagen)
A Volkswagen employee works on a vehicle at the company’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Photo provided by Volkswagen)

Staff Report
Published Feb. 19, 2014

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Efforts by the United Auto Workers to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the Southeast suffered a blow last week when workers at the Volkswagen plant rejected union representation.

At the end of voting on Friday, Volkswagen workers voted against joining the union 712 to 626. Officials also reported that 165 workers, or about 11%, didn’t vote.

The tally followed three days of voting during an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Union officials said the works council would have been the first such model of labor-management relations in the United States.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

“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,” said UAW President Bob King.

VW labor officials in Germany said they still intend to work toward union representation and establishing a local works council.

“The outcome of the vote, however, does not change our goal of setting up a works council in Chattanooga,” Gunnar Kilian, works council secretary general, said in a statement reported by The New York Times. “We know from many discussions with our colleagues in Chattanooga that there is great interest on the part of workers to establish worker representation inside the plant.”

Chattanooga is the only major Volkswagen assembly facility without labor representation. With a works council, the Chattanooga plant would have a seat at the VW Global Group Works Council. Ultimately, such a labor relations model would give workers a role in co-managing the company and providing input on workplace improvements.

For its part, VW took a neutral position on the union vote, and indicated support for a works council

“Our employees have not made a decision that they are against a works council,” said Frank Fischer, CEO and chairman of Volkswagen Chattanooga. “Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant.

“Our goal continues to be to determine the best method for establishing a works council in accordance with the requirements of U.S. labor law to meet VW America’s production needs and serve our employees’ interests,” Fischer said.

Although VW supports the establishment of a works council, observers say that it would be illegal under federal law unless workers vote to be represented by a union. Without union representation, the council would likely be considered as an employee unit created and dominated by the company — a violation of U.S. labor law.

The UAW charged that its efforts to organize workers in a region hostile to unions were subverted by Tennessee politicians who said a labor organization would jeopardize jobs and the plant’s economic future.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, and GOP U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, former mayor of Chattanooga, both were critical of UAW’s efforts to organize, saying other foreign companies might back off plans to invest in Tennessee if the union gained a foothold at the VW plant.

“We’re trying to be really clear: I think that there are some ramifications to the vote in terms of our ability to attract other suppliers,” Haslam said during a meeting with The Nashville Tennessean’s editorial board prior to the Chattanooga vote. “When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time.”

VW’s commitment to Tennessee “is a long-term investment,” Fischer said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the state of Tennessee and the city of Chattanooga to support job creation, growth, and economic development today and into the future.”

Besides the VW factory in Tennessee, there are eight other foreign-owned automotive manufacturing plants in the Southeast and none has a union. Those plants include BMW in Greer, S.C.; Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn., and in Canton, Miss.; Toyota in Tupelo, Miss.; Honda in Lincoln, Ala.; Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Ala.; Hyundai in Montgomery, Ala.; and Kia in West Point, Ga.

The NLRB still must certify the vote. It’s possible that the UAW might challenge the results because of comments made by anti-union groups and Republican lawmakers that could have influenced VW workers.

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