Skilled trades workers at Volkswagen’s auto assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee on December 4 voted to designate UAW Local 42 as their collective bargaining representative.
The vote was 108 voting yes in favor of the union to 44 voting no. One hundred sixty skilled trades workers, who maintain and repair the plant’s machines and robotic equipment, work at the plant, which employs 1400 hourly workers.
The pro-union vote was the United Autoworkers’ (UAW) first union representation victory at a southern auto plant owned by a foreign company.
UAW lost a close plant-wide union election at Volkswagen Chattanooga in 2014.
After the loss, the UAW issued a charter to Local 42, which continued to organize and advocate for workers at the Chattanooga plant.
A majority of workers at Volkswagen Chattanooga have joined Local 42, which meets regularly with Volkswagen mangement to discuss issues that concern hourly workers at the plant.
But Local 42 doesn’t have a collective bargaining agreement with Volkswagen.
Union leaders think that the skilled trades workers victory will create a path toward full union representation at the plant.
“A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga,” said Mike Cantrell, president of Local 42. “We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time.”
The path toward union recognition for the skilled trades workers was opened in August when Local 42 asked Volkswagen management to recognize the union as the bargaining representative for the skilled trades workers in the plant.
Management declined to recognize the union.
In October, Local 42 petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election for the skilled trades workers.
A month later, an NLRB regional office ruled that the skilled trades workers were a legitimate bargaining group within the plant and scheduled a union election for December 3 and December 4.
In petitioning for an election among a distinct group of workers at the Volkswagen plant, the UAW was taking advantage of recent NLRB rulings that protect the right of free choice for workers when they’re deciding whether to unionize.
The NLRB in 2011 ruled in favor of 53 certified nursing assistants at a Specialty Healthcare nursing home in Mobile, Alabama, who wanted to form their own union.
Management said that they didn’t have the right choose their own union. If they wanted a union, it would have to be one defined by the employer–in this case, a union that included all of the nursing home’s non-professional staff.
The NLRB ruled that the nurses shared an overwhelming community-of-interests, which made it appropriate for them to form a union among themselves.
In 2013, the board’s ruling was upheld by the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Specialty Healthcare ruling seemed to be intended specifically to the nursing home industry.
In a 2014 decision, the NLRB extended this freedom to choose protection when it ruled that employees in the cosmetic and fragrance department at a Macy’s department store in Saugus, Massachusetts could form a union among themselves and bargain collectively with management.
Business interest seeking to thwart unionization efforts have vigorously opposed the Specialty Healthcare and Macy’s rulings arguing that they will result in the proliferation of “micro unions” that will unfairly burden management.
They continue to pursue appeals in courts and have gotten lawmakers in Congress to introduce legislation that would nullify the NLRB’s rulings.
Volkswagen joined other businesses in opposing the NLRB’s efforts to protect workers’ free choice when the company on December 1 appealed the NLRB’s regional office’s decision.
After the successful union representation election, UAW urged Volkswagen to drop its appeal and begin bargaining with the union.
“Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress,” said Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, which covers the South. “We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.”
Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer, said that its time for Volkswagen to drop its appeal and “refocus on values that made it a successful brand–environmental sustainability and meaningful employee relations.”