In what could be a historic breakthrough, the United Auto Workers blasts a hole in the anti-union defenses of the transplanted auto plants in the Southern U.S.
In an opinion released last week, the federal National Labor Relations Board ruled Volkswagen had not pressured workers to sign a petition asking for union representation. The decision brings the UAW a step closer to its goal of organizing workers at VW’s new assembly complex in Chattanooga, TN, and reaching a labor agreement with the German automaker.
In an opinion asking the director of the NLRB’s regional office in Atlanta to dismiss a petition filed by employees at the Chattanooga plant opposed to the UAW, a staff member of the board’s general counsel said, “On at least dozens of occasions throughout this entire period (VW) has consistently emphasized in person, in writing, and through media outlets that the decision on unionization and forming a works council was up to its employees.”
The employees complained last year that statements by members of the Volkswagen Board of Supervisors in Germany, who also are members of the IG Metall German metalworkers union, had pressured employees to sign the pro-union petitions. Employees can appeal but the decision is very likely to be upheld.
“We note the decision by the NLRB, which we see as confirmation of our legal position on union representation for the 1,700 workers employed at the plant, which opened in 2011 and is scheduled to build a new crossover vehicle under an expansion plan,” VW spokesman Scott Wilson says in an emailed statement.
“We wish to reiterate that as a general principle, Volkswagen supports the right of employees to representation at all its plants and is in favor of good cooperation with the trade union or unions represented at its plants.
“For this reason, Volkswagen is currently working on an innovative model for the representation of employees’ interests which will be suitable for the USA. This model will be based on positive experience in Germany and other countries where the Volkswagen Group is active.”
Unlike other automakers with plants across the South, VW, under pressure from the labor members on its board of supervisors, allowed distribution of pro-union literature at Chattanooga. The pamphlet extolled the automaker’s commitment to giving employees a voice in company affairs through a local workers’ council. Such councils are allowed in the U.S. only if they include union representatives.
Opening the door to the UAW at VW has ignited a political controversy that has rippled across Tennessee and spilled over into neighboring states such as Mississippi and Alabama, as political conservatives from the U.S. Senate to local county commissioners have denounced the UAW and VW’s policies that tilt toward the union.
Despite the hostile political climate facing the union in Tennessee, “The notion that Southern workers do not want a union is false,” UAW President Bob King says.
Employees at Chattanooga, which builds the North American version of the Passat, already have signed cards asking for union representation, King says. The cards have been counted by an outside party and clearly indicate a majority of workers at the plant want a union, he says.
King praises VW’s “global” management for dealing fairly with the union issue. “We had some issues with the local management (in Tennessee), but those have been resolved,” he says.
“Increasing union membership is critical to protecting the living standards of middle-class Americans,” the union leader says. “Forming a union in the U.S. requires enormous courage and determination.
“The fact is, (workers) face threats of job loss and intimidation, not just by local management but also by local political and corporate powers when they seek to exercise their rights,” King says. “Volkswagen workers in the U.S. want a seat at the table just like their co-workers in Japan, Britain, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere already have.
“They insist they are not second-class citizens.”
The NLRB ruling is “very important for the U.S. auto industry,” notes Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley. “It will be a different industry.
“Volkswagen is one of the world's most successful automakers. It has enormous experience with unions around the world," Shaiken says. “It is basically saying that it can work with the United Auto Workers.
“They view the relationship with employees as critical. The relationship is more important than the anti-union ideology harbored by local political figures around the Chattanooga plant.”
WardsAuto data shows VW adding production of a CUV based on the CrossBlue concept unveiled in Detroit in January to the Chattanooga mix in 2015.