UAW trying different approach to unionize Volkswagen plant

Despite two failed attempts to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the United Auto Workers (UAW) on July 10 announced the creation of Local 42, a local that Chattanooga VW workers can join voluntarily.

“We’ve had ongoing discussions with Volkswagen and have arrived at a consensus with the company,” Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, said in a statement about the union’s latest move. “Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local. As part of this consensus, the UAW is committed to continuing its joint efforts with Volkswagen to ensure the company’s expansion and growth in Chattanooga.”

In the fall of 2013, the union conducted a “card check” campaign in an effort to unionize the plant. But workers filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the union of using misleading and bullying tactics to gain a majority of the workers’ signatures.

So then Volkswagen agreed to a secret-ballot election and to sign a neutrality agreement with the UAW. That agreement meant that the company would refrain from speaking against the union’s efforts to unionize the plant and give it access to various plant facilities.

As part of the agreement, the UAW promised not to defame the company or strike during negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement in the event the union was voted in as a bargaining representative. The union lost the election, held in February 2014, by a vote of 712-626.

Volkswagen has said it wants to establish a “works council” at the Chattanooga plant like it has at other facilities. Such a council would require union representation.

After the election, Frank Fischer, CEO and chairman of Volkswagen Chattanooga, reiterated the company’s desire for a works council. “Our employees have not made a decision that they are against a works council,” he said. “Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant. Our goal continues to be to determine the best method for establishing a works council in accordance with the requirements of U.S. labor law to meet VW America’s production needs and serve our employees’ interests.”

Dennis Williams, UAW president, was quoted in a July 11 Chattanooga Times Free Press article as saying workers joining the local won’t pay dues right away because dues can’t be collected until 30 days after a collective bargaining agreement is put in place with a company.

Plant workers and other interested parties are voicing opinions for and against the union’s creation of Local 42. Kay Gray was quoted in the Times Free Press as saying the opportunity to join the local is “something we are doing for ourselves and our coworkers.” She also said “the more I learned about the prospects of a union, the more I wanted this opportunity.”

Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, was quoted in the Times Free Press as saying voluntary membership may lead to an end run around an official election: “Maybe today it seems that Local 42 is just a voluntary organization, but someday soon the UAW may use your membership card in order to get the union recognized for every worker in the plant so it can move for Detroit-style collective bargaining without ever holding a secret-ballot vote.”