UAW Looks to Build on Small Victory in Tennessee

“The UAW could have just folded up and gone away after losing that first election” at Chattanooga, labor expert Harley Shaiken says. “They could have lost the second election and it would have been a big defeat and it would have called into question their strategy and even the future of the union. But they persevered.”

Joseph Szczesny

December 8, 2015

5 Min Read
VW opposes separate UAW representation for skilledtrades workers
VW opposes separate UAW representation for skilled-trades workers.

The UAW's success in organizing skilled-trades workers at Volkswagen of America in Chattanooga, TN, represents a major step forward in the union’s long, frustrating fight to win recognition at foreign automakers’ plants in the Southern U.S.

The union won its first organizing victory in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board when electricians, millwrights and mechanics voted by a 71% margin to join the UAW. The NLRB says of the 164 skilled-trades workers eligible to vote at Chattanooga, which employs a total of 1,450 workers, 104 voted to join Local 42 and 48 voted no.

Volkswagen has said it will appeal the results.

It was the first time workers at a factory in the Southern U.S. owned by a European or Asian automaker have voted to join a union since the transplants arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s.

“It most definitely puts pressure on the transplants to raise wages,” says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley, who says wages at the Southern plants had declined as the foreign automakers followed the pattern established by the UAW’s concessions to Detroit’s automakers and lowered new employees’ pay.

“It's a very significant victory for the UAW because even though it’s a relatively small group of workers, it shows the union can organize workers at a Southern auto plant,” Shaiken says, noting opponents of the UAW had cited the lack of representation at other plants in the first election at Chattanooga in February 2014 and in other campaigns in the South.

All hourly employees were eligible to vote in the first election and UAW representation was rejected on a 712-626 vote. VW confirmed in December that at least 45% of workers had joined the union, but no collective-bargaining agreement on wages and benefits is in place.

“The UAW could have just folded up and gone away after losing that first election,” Shaiken says. “But they didn't. They could have lost the second election and it would have been a big defeat and it would have called into question their strategy and even the future of the union. But they persevered.”

VW Wants Election Reboot

VW plans to appeal the outcome of the vote and has filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board. The automaker argues any union should represent both skilled and production workers.

“As has always been the case, Volkswagen respects the right of our employees to decide the question of union representation,” the automaker says in a statement. “Nevertheless, we believe that a union of only maintenance employees fractures our workforce and does not take into account the overwhelming community of interest shared between our maintenance and production employees.

“Therefore, as we indicated prior to the election, we are appealing to the NLRB to reconsider the decision to separate Volkswagen maintenance and production workers and to allow them to vote as one group on the matter of union representation.”

However, under U.S. labor law small groups of workers within larger installations with more employees are allowed to organize their own union. Legal precedent in this case appears to be on the side of the union.

The UAW also accuses VW of backtracking on previous commitments to negotiate in good faith. “The facts are: In spring 2014, Volkswagen committed to recognize a UAW local union as the representative of its members in order for the union and the company to enter into collective bargaining,” the UAW said in a statement after the NLRB authorized the separate vote among skilled-trades workers. “The company did not honor that commitment and, as a result, employees have grown increasingly impatient and have decided to exercise their rights under the law.

“Chattanooga is the company’s only plant in the world that does not have a seat on the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council, and that needs to change if the plant is going to play a meaningful role in Volkswagen’s comeback story.”

If the full NLRB turns down VW’s appeal as expected, the UAW has indicated it will press for negotiations on a new contract for the skilled-trades workers. Such talks would demonstrate to other VW employees the benefits of joining the union, Shaiken says.

“People want a voice,” UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell told reporters in Detroit where he predicted a union victory at Volkswagen.

UAW Looks to Press Advantage

The UAW, with help of the German metalworkers union, IG Metall, is expected to press VW to accept the results of a “card check” that would give the union the right to represent all production workers at Chattanooga plant.

“A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multiyear contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga,” Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said after the results were announced by the NLRB.

“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.”

So far, VWA, which is under considerable pressure from Tennessee’s conservative Republican political establishment not to make any concessions to the UAW or IG Metall, has resisted the card check.

The political establishment around Chattanooga and in Tennessee had been eager to secure the Volkswagen factory but never expected it would be non-union. They have attacked the union furiously and VW even has granted partial recognition to an anti-union group of employees.

But the UAW victory places VW’s local management in a difficult spot. The skilled-trades cadre that voted to join the union is critical to the expansion of the Chattanooga plant slated to build the new CrossBlue CUV, which is vital to VW’s future expansion in the U.S., a market where VW has faltered over the years but is loath to abandon.

Shaiken says the win at Volkswagen likely will energize other UAW organizing efforts, particularly at the Nissan plant in Canton, MS, and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL, where the UAW has set up a local office and has enlisted the help of IG Metall.

The union succeeded this fall in negotiating significant pay increases with the Detroit Three automakers that could be used as leverage in its effort to organize workers in the South.



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