NASHVILLE, Tenn. – While the United Auto Workers is celebrating the end of its losing streak at foreign automakers in the South, Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was dismissive Monday of the significance of what he calls the union’s “cherry-picked” win at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
The UAW scored a 108-44 win among the skilled-trades workers who make up about 12 per cent of the blue-collar workforce at the plant in a union vote on Friday. Volkswagen opposed the creation of any bargaining unit short of all 1,400 production and maintenance workers, and the company is seeking an appeal.
Republicans have long opposed the UAW gaining a foothold among automakers in the South, arguing that it runs contrary to their “right-to-work” philosophy and could hurt efforts to recruit other businesses to the region.
Haslam said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Monday that he doesn’t believe the vote represents a major change in Tennessee’s business climate, especially considering that the UAW lost a vote among all hourly workers in February 2014.
“I think most businesses will see this for what it is,” Haslam said. “The UAW lost the big vote, and then came in and cherry-picked a unit. So I’m not sure this sends a message of a changing tide to the outside world.”
Haslam said the political reaction to a new union vote has been more muted because it involves a smaller number of workers and because of the massive problems facing the company as it tries to cope with the fallout from its diesel emissions cheating scandal.
Volkswagen has publicly reaffirmed its plans to build a new SUV at the plant next year, and has stressed that the U.S. will remain a key market. But November sales were down almost 25 per cent from a year ago, and Chattanooga-made Passats plummeted by 60 per cent despite the release of an updated version of the midsized sedan.
Haslam praised the company for opposing the smaller bargaining unit and for pursuing the legal challenge. But labour representatives who hold half the seats on Volkswagen’s board in Germany don’t appear pleased.
“A democratic election has taken place here, and its outcome should be accepted,” Bernd Osterloh, the head of Volkswagen’s influential employee council, told the German newspaper Braunschweiger Zeitung.
It’s also unclear how far Volkswagen will be willing to take its appeal.
Bill Ozier, a Nashville attorney who has represented employers in labour issues for more than 40 years, said it’s unlikely that the National Labor Relations Board, controlled by Democrats, will overturn the creation of the skilled-trades bargaining unit at Volkswagen.
“When I saw they were appealing, I thought their strategy has got to be to drag this out as long as possible, because their lawyers know they’re going to lose,” he said.
Ozier said if the company loses the appeal, its only way to get the case to the courts would be to refuse to bargain with the UAW. That would draw an unfair labour practices complaint from the NLRB, which could then be challenged in federal appeals court.
“That’s not going to make for many happy employees in the process,” Ozier said.
Volkswagen Chattanooga spokesman Scott Wilson said the company declines “to speculate about steps down the line.”
Amid the honking horns of union supporters celebrating Friday’s election result, UAW Regional Director Ray Curry said the union is looking forward to resolving its differences with Volkswagen.
“We don’t believe the relationship has ever gone south,” he said. “We believe the relationship has continued to be positive.”