NASHVILLE, Tenn. – By giving labour groups more access to its lone U.S. plant in Tennessee, Volkswagen signalled Wednesday that it won’t follow the lead of other foreign-owned automakers in the South in seeking to tamp down union activity.
The German company’s new policy has given hope to both supporters and opponents of efforts by the United Auto Workers to unionize its first foreign-owned plant in the region.
The outcome of the union drive at the Tennessee plant is being closely monitored by other German and Asian automakers in the region, and by Republican officials who dread the prospect of a UAW breaking its losing streak among what the union refers to as the “transplants.”
The company’s new policy gives labour groups that sign up at least 15 per cent of the plant’s workers access to plant facilities and to regular meetings with management. It comes on the heels of news that Volkswagen and the UAW have reached an agreement on future recognition of the union at the plant.
Volkswagen said its policy is aimed at developing a “constructive dialogue” between workers and management. Volkswagen management has been under heavy pressure from powerful worker representatives who control half of the automaker’s board in Germany because the U.S. plant is alone among the company’s worldwide plants without labour representation.
The same law requiring labour representation on the Volkswagen board also applies to other German automakers with factories in the South, like BMW and Mercedes parent Daimler. The UAW has so far failed to make inroads at those companies’ plants in Alabama and South Carolina, and Republican officials there have been keen to keep it that way.
The UAW has also been rebuffed in its efforts to represent workers at Japanese automakers like Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi.
The policy would base the level of access to meeting facilities and frequency of meetings with plant management on a sliding scale pegged to whether they represent 15, 30 or 45 per cent of workers at the plant.
The UAW, which narrowly lost a union vote at the plant in February, has cited written agreements with Volkswagen management and board members as giving the union assurances it would be recognized as the representatives of its members at the plant.
Volkswagen and the union reached an agreement last spring under which the UAW said it would co-operate with efforts to win production of a new SUV in Tennessee, and that it would drop its National Labor Relations Board challenge alleging interference by Republican officials and anti-union groups in the February vote.
In return, Volkswagen committed to recognizing the UAW, according to the letter signed by Mike Cantrell and Steve Cochran, president and vice-president of UAW’s Local 42.
Casteel said the local has signed up a majority of workers at the plant, and will soon submit to Volkswagen’s verification process, outlined in the policy.
But workers who spearheaded the 712-626 defeat of the UAW in the February union vote have created their own organization called the American Council of Employees.