NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The United Auto Workers union is hailing a new Volkswagen policy as a vehicle to soon gain representation of workers at its first foreign auto plant in the South.
Not so fast, says a group of workers who orchestrated a narrow defeat of the UAW in a union vote at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant earlier this year.
The details of the new policy have yet to be released, but both the UAW and the rival American Council of Employees expect it to outline the company’s plans to interact with community and labour groups at the plant.
The UAW expects the policy change to lead to the union being recognized by the company to bargain on behalf of all workers at the plant, the UAW said in a letter to members of Local 42 in Chattanooga on Monday.
Volkswagen and the union reached an agreement last spring, according to the letter obtained by The Associated Press. The UAW said it would co-operate with efforts to win production of a new SUV in Chattanooga, and that it would drop its National Labor Relations Board challenge of the February union vote.
In return, Volkswagen committed to recognizing the UAW, which would give it the authority to bargain on behalf of both members and non-members, according to the letter signed by Mike Cantrell and Steve Cochran, the president and vice-president of Local 42.
Tennessee’s right-to-work laws mean no worker can be forced to join a union, though the UAW says more than half of eligible workers have signed up.
But Sean Moss, the interim president of the independent worker group, says the UAW is exaggerating its strength and that more white and blue collar workers are gravitating toward the American Council of Employees.
“What we’re offering is to have the local employees in the local plant dictate their own path moving forward,” Moss said. “There’s no interest coming from Detroit, there’s no interest coming from Washington.
“Everything is going to be centred on the plant,” he said.
The UAW in February lost the contentious union election at the Volkswagen plant by a 712-626 vote amid warnings from Republican politicians — including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam — that $300 million in incentives for expansion could be imperiled if the union won.
Corker drew the ire of the UAW for repeatedly suggesting before the February union vote that he had inside information that the rejection of the union would result in the company deciding to expand the plant within two weeks.
It was later revealed that the state’s $300 million incentive package offered to Volkswagen had contained the caveat that the money was subject to labour talks “being concluded to the satisfaction” of the state. Haslam declined to specify which scenarios would have satisfied the state.
Volkswagen ultimately announced in July that it will invest $600 million to expand the factory to build a new seven-seater SUV as it seeks to reverse flagging U.S. sales.
The company did not respond to requests for comment. Spokespeople for Haslam and Corker also declined comment.
The automaker wants to create a German-style works council at the Chattanooga plant to represent both salaried and blue-collar workers. But the company’s interpretation of U.S. law indicates that it must work with an independent union to operate a works council.
The UAW’s case at the Tennessee plant has been bolstered by support from labour representatives who control half the seats on the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker’s supervisory board.
The UAW, its German counterpart IG Metall and the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council in September signed an agreement outlining their joint efforts to gain labour representation at the Chattanooga plant, including the goal of the UAW gaining “exclusive majority status and recognition of this by Volkswagen.”
The strong links between the UAW and the powerful labour interests at Volkswagen could make it difficult for rival employee groups they call management-friendly “yellow unions” to gain favour with the company.
Organizing foreign-owned auto plants has been seen as key for the UAW to revive its fortunes. Union membership stood at about 391,000 at the start of this year — a far cry from its 1979 peak of 1.5 million.