Skilled trades workers vote for union at Volkswagen Chattanooga

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.”


UAW gets a toe hold in the South at Volkswagen

Volkswagen on November 12 issued a new policy at its US plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee that should result in its partial recognition of UAW Local 42, a new local of Chattanooga auto workers chartered by the UAW last summer.

The policy entitled “Community Organization Engagement” states that the company will recognize employee organizations that meet company-established thresholds for membership.

According to the policy, employee organizations whose membership is at least 45 percent of the plant’s production workers can meet on company property during non-work hours once a month and will be able to meet with representatives of the plant’s human resources division every two weeks. Representatives of the employee organization may also meet with the company’s executive committee once a month.

Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer said that more than half of the eligible workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant had joined Local 42. He also said that an independent auditor hired by Volkswagen will conduct an audit to verify the number of Chattanooga workers who are members of Local 42 and that after the verification, Volkswagen would recognize Local 42.

“When the verification is completed, we will take advantage of the company’s offer to establish regular meetings with the human resources staff and the executive committee,” said Casteel.

Volkswagen’s new policy, however, leaves open the possibility that other organizations could be recognized by Volkswagen.

According to the policy, an employees’ organization whose membership is at least 30 percent of the workforce will be able to meet with the executive committee once a quarter.

An organization with at least 15 percent will be able to meet with human resources representatives once a  month.

The American Employees Council (ACE), a new group of Volkswagen workers who opposed the UAW in a union representation election in February has opened an office near the Chattanooga plant and said that it will seek recognition by Volkswagen.

It’s difficult to tell where ACE got the resources to open an office or conduct an organizing campaign, but it shares a common antipathy toward UAW with various right-wing groups that invested heavily in the anti-union effort that led to UAW’s defeat in a union representation election held in February at the Chattanooga plant.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Center of Worker Freedom, which is backed by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and the National Right to Work Committee spent heavily on an anti-union media campaign before the union election took place.

ACE is also supported by the MacKinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, a political group that supports right to work (for less) laws and charter schools and opposes the expansion of Medicaid.

Vincent Vernuccio of the MacKinac Center told the Detroit Free Press that it would be good for all parties concerned if Volkswagen recognized ACE as well as the UAW.

While the UAW expressed guarded support for Volkswagen’s new policy, the union said that the policy fell short of fulfilling a commitment that Volkswagen made to the UAW last spring.

It was the union’s understanding that if it did two things:

  • Withdraw its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board that the February election was tainted by illegal outside interference and
  • Use its influence with IG Metall, the German auto union whose leaders hold several seats on the Volkswagen Board of Directors, and the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council to convince Volkswagen to build a new assembly line in Chattanooga rather than Mexico

Volkswagen USA would recognize the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representatives for the workers at Chattanooga.

UAW carried out its commitment on both counts. The appeal was dropped and with the backing of IG Metall and the Global Works Council, the Chattanooga plant was tapped to be the home for a new assembly line where a new Volkswagen SUV will be built.

Casteel said that after the UAW is recognized, its first order of business will be to discuss these commitments with management.

“In our first conversation that will occur (with Volkswagen management), we will remind them of the mutually agreed upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and UAW last spring in Germany: Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members,” said Casteel.

UAW charters Local 42 in Chattanooga; VW announces expansion

The UAW on July 10 announced that it was chartering of a new UAW local at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Members of the new UAW local, Local 42, said that they would begin signing up other workers at the Chattanooga plant. They also said that they expected the company to recognize the union.

“We’ll move forward as a members’ union until we gain the majority, which we feel confident will be very soon.” said Marc Lemmon, a Local 42 member.

“In the very short-term, I think we’re going to be at the bargaining table,” said Jonathan Walden, a Local 42 member.

At the media conference announcing the charter of Local 42, UAW international officials said that the UAW and Local 42  would work with Volkswagen to expand production at the plant.

“The UAW is committed to continuing its joint efforts with Volkswagen to ensure the company’s expansion and growth in Chattanooga,” said Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer

In a related development, Volkswagen on July 14 announced that it was expanding production at the Chattanooga plant.

Local 42 members also said that now that a union was at the plant, the company will likely establish a works council.

Works councils, worker-management organizations at the plant level that make decisions about production, safety, and other matters, are part of the Volkswagen management culture and are present at all Volkswagen plants around the world except in the US and China.

UAW officials and Volkswagen executive management in Germany had discussed establishing a works council in Chattanooga, but those plans hit a snag when UAW lost a union representation election in February.

Establishing a works council without a union that acts as a collective bargaining representative of the workers would have been difficult because a works council without an independent union could be construed as a company union.

Company unions were made illegal in the US by the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 because employers used them to thwart workers’ efforts to organize unions and bargain collectively.

When UAW petitioned for a union election in January, Volkswagen management said that it would remain neutral.

After the UAW lost the election, it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The complaint said that the election had been tainted by outside interference.

Documents obtained by In These Times, showed that right wing groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation had poured money into the anti-UAW effort and had advised anti-union workers at the plant.

Several days before the election, Tennessee’s US Senator Bob Corker implied that a pro-union vote by workers would torpedo plans to build a new assembly line manufacturing SUVs at the Chattanooga plant.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam also suggested that a pro-union vote would prevent Volkswagen from getting state subsidies to expand production.

Sen. Corker and Gov. Haslam declined to cooperate with the NLRB investigation, and in April the UAW dropped its complaint.

When it did so, union officials said that they would shift their focus toward helping Volkswagen expand production at the Chattanooga plant.

“The UAW is ready to put February’s tainted election in the rearview mirror and instead focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga,” said Bob King, the then-president of UAW.

At the media conference announcing the formation of Local 42, the UAW reaffirmed its commitment to help Volkswagen expand production.

“Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local,” said Casteel. “As part of this consensus, the UAW is committed to continuing its joint efforts with Volkswagen to ensure the company’s expansion and growth in Chattanooga.”

Four days after the formation of Local 42, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn announced that the company would invest $600 million dollars in its Chattanooga plant.

The investment will pay for a new assembly line that manufacturers an SUV and a research and development facility.

The expansion will add about 2,000 jobs in Chattanooga.

Casteel in a media statement said that the withdrawal of the union’s election complaint and the announcement that Chattanooga would be the site for the production of the new SUV were related.

“The UAW knew that withdrawing its objections to February’s tainted election, in consensus with Volkswagen, would expedite the company’s decision on the new product line,” said Casteel, “The fact that the new line is being announced four days after the rollout of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga reinforces the consensus that the UAW has reached with the company.”