Majority sign union cards at Tennessee auto plant

Auto News reports that UAW President Bob King told a German newspaper that a majority of workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee had signed union authorization cards, bringing the plant one step closer to becoming the first unionized foreign-owned auto factory in the South.

King and other UAW leaders have been in Germany talking to VW management about establishing a works council at the Chattanooga plant. A works council is a group of rank and file workers elected by other workers that would have a voice in decisions that affect their jobs.

In Germany, where works councils are common, the councils have a say in hiring and firing, staffing, safety, other working conditions, and plant design and process decisions.

VW’s Chattanooga plant is the only plant in its worldwide operations that doesn’t have a works council.

VW obviously sees an advantage to having works councils at its plants, but in order to establish one in the US without violating US labor laws, the company would need to recognize a union as the workers collective bargaining representative.

Getting a majority of the 2,100 workers at the Chattanooga plant to sign union authorization cards, moves the UAW closer to being recognized as the workers’ collective bargaining agent.

Since a majority of workers have signed authorization cards, VW could voluntarily recognize the UAW as the workers collective bargaining representatives or ask for a union election that would be supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

UAW and VW representatives are still holding talks about how a works council could be established in the US.

The union authorization cards that the Chattanooga workers signed also contain language expressing a desire to become a part of VW’s global works council.

VW is a worldwide leader in the auto industry with ambitions to become the dominant force within the industry. To do so, it must ramp up sales in the US where its products now compete only in niche markets.

To expand its role in the US market, VW will have to increase domestic production to hold down costs.

A deal with the UAW would allow VW to begin the process of increasing production in the US without the distraction of an ongoing labor organizing drive like the one taking place at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

The UAW has made it a priority to unionize foreign auto plants that have located in the South. More than 43 percent of the autos produced in the US are now produced in southern factories where 50,000 non-union workers work.

If the UAW fails to organize a decent share of these workers, its bargaining position with GM, Ford, and Chrysler will be weakened, which could lead to more concessions, or at least, an inability to regain some of the lost ground given up in recent negotiations with domestic manufacturers.

The UAW believes that its new organizing approach–one in which the union casts itself as a partner with company to make it more profitable–could lead more foreign companies to make deals with the union.

Cooperating with VW in establishing a works council is part of this new approach.

The German auto workers union, IG Metall, has a similar relationship with VW. In fact, members of IG Metall hold seats on VW’s board of directors.

IG Metall has played a key role in bringing the UAW and VW together.

At a recent public roundtable discussion in Germany that included representatives from IG Metall, UAW, and VW, Horst Neumann, an IG Metall leader and member of VW’s board of directors, said that he was mystified by the resistance to unions that exists in the US, especially in the South.

“Had they been here to listen to the roundtable discussion they would have seen  that we work together — it’s a model for success,” said Neumann, to Auto News.

Even though, VW and the UAW appear to be cooperating in an attempt to bring a works council and a union to Chattanooga, some southern leaders remain adamantly opposed to a deal between the UAW and VW.

Leaders such as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslan and US Senator Bob Corker expressed dismay at the possibility that UAW could get a foothold in the South at the Chattanooga plant, which they claim will hurt the region’s ability to attract new business with its low wages and anti-union prejudices.

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