Why Volkswagen agreed to UAW local at its US plant – USA TODAY
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – In a move that’s unusual but not unprecedented, the United Auto Workers union has sidestepped its loss in a worker vote in February and created a local union to represent workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee.
And what’s surprising, considering decades of fierce anti-union efforts from the other foreign transplant automakers in the South, this time the union had the tacit approval of Volkswagen itself.
“We have a consensus agreement with Volkswagen management to form the local and be recognized when we get a majority of the workers to join,” said UAW International Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel of Ashland City, who has been overseeing the union’s organizing drives at the Southern auto plants for the past several years – unsuccessfully, until now.
The union’s move also creates some uncertainly over Volkswagen’s continuing negotiations with the state of Tennessee on a proposed $300 million incentives package to persuade the world’s largest automaker to to build a new crossover utility vehicle in Chattanooga, a move that could brings hundreds of millions in new investment and creates hundreds more jobs.
UAW International President Dennis Williams announced the formation of Local 42 during a charter-signing ceremony on Thursday afternoon at the union’s offices a few miles from the plant, where 1,500 workers assemble the Volkswagen Passat sedan.
Williams said the union’s had two reasons for establishing the new chapter in Chattanooga:
First, the February vote was a narrow loss – 53% to 47% – and the result showed strong support among workers, despite heavy opposition from outside group and Tennessee legislators.
Second, the UAW said they already had signed cards from a majority of the workers prior to the election, saying they favored representation.
The union took that as a mandate to represent any workers who want to join the new local, even though membership will be voluntary, and for now, no dues will be collected.
“We said we wouldn’t give up on these workers, and we’re not going to,” Williams said. He pledged that the union would work with Volkswagen to train and educate the workers so they would be the best the automaker could get.
Volkswagen, for its part, issued a statement that said: “Just like anywhere else in the world, the establishment of a local organization is a matter for the trade union concerned. There is no contract or other formal agreement with UAW on this matter.”
Anti-union groups that helped orchestrate the union’s defeat in February called Thursday’s move “troubling,” and vowed to continue their fight against representation by the Detroit-based labor union.
That the UAW would go ahead with organizing at Volkswagen despite losing the vote election was “not unexpected” though, said Matt Patterson, president of the Center for Worker Freedom, one of the groups that has campaigned here relentlessly against the union.
“I’ve been beating that drum ever since the election,” Patterson said. “I’m extremely disappointed that the union is not respecting the wishes of the workers, who said loudly and clearly they did not want the UAW in their workplace. If the union truly respects the workers, like they say they do, then they will respect the decision these workers made.”
Patterson said he had never heard of a union going ahead and setting up shop even though it had lost an election, but Williams said it was a common tactic earlier in the UAW’s history.
“But we haven’t done it for many, many years,” he said.
Casteel also hinted that the UAW might try a similar tactic in its current organizing drives at other Southern auto plants, particularly the Nissan facility in Canton, Miss.
The automaker has tried several times – and lost by lopsided votes – to organize at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, but it’s now running a campaign at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., as well as at the Canton Nissan plant.
“I don’t know of any case like this, but the whole situation in Chattanooga is bizarre and unique,” Patterson said. “They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have the tacit approval of Volkswagen management.”
He said he would be returning to Chattanooga and “talking to some folks about what we can do about this.”
Casteel said the union is expecting the state to honor its earlier promise not to let the outcome of the UAW organizing drive influence its willingness to provide tax breaks and other incentives for the plant’s expansion.
“We would fully expect that the state would respect the wishes of the workers,” Casteel said.