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Latest News - February 2014

February 3, 2014
VW Workers in Tennessee to Vote on Union
Source: Ny Times
By: Steven Greenhouse

In what will be one of the most closely watched unionization elections in the South in decades, Volkswagen announced on Monday that the 1,600 workers at its assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will vote next week on whether to join the United Automobile Workers.

The union has voiced unusual optimism about winning because Volkswagen, unlike many United States companies, is not opposing the unionization drive and because U.A.W. organizers say the majority of workers have already signed cards backing a union.

In announcing the secret-ballot election, which will be held Feb. 12 through Feb. 14, Volkswagen said the U.A.W., if voted in, would work to set up a works council — a common industry practice in Germany in which managers work with representatives of white- and blue-collar workers to foster collaboration and increase productivity.

“Volkswagen Group of America and the U.A.W. have agreed to this common path for the election,” said Frank Fischer, chairman and chief executive of Volkswagen Chattanooga. “Volkswagen is committed to neutrality and calls upon all third parties to honor the principle of neutrality.”

Many Tennessee lawmakers, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker, have voiced concern about the U.A.W.’s drive, warning that the unionization of the plant would make it less competitive and hurt Chattanooga’s and Tennessee’s business climate. But U.A.W. officials and many pro-union workers argue that having a union will make the plant more efficient and productive by increasing labor-management collaboration.

“Volkswagen is known globally for its system of cooperation with unions and works councils,” said Bob King, the union’s president. “The U.A.W. seeks to partner with Volkswagen Group of America and a works council to set a new standard in the U.S. for innovative labor-management relations that benefits the company, the entire work force, shareholders and the community.”

The U.A.W. and many labor relations experts say it would be illegal to have a works council at an American company without first having a union voted in, because without one the works council might be considered an improper employer-dominated employee group.

Works councils traditionally represent employees on a wide range of internal matters at a plant, Volkswagen said, while their union represents the employees on matters relating to terms and conditions like pay, benefits and length of workweek. VW said the detailed distribution of responsibilities between union and works council would be negotiated if the U.A.W. wins next week’s vote.

William L. Canak, a labor relations expert at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, said he expected a surge in anti-U.A.W. activity in Chattanooga over the next week.

“This effort will inflame many lawmakers and the Chamber of Commerce and other groups that oppose unions and collective bargaining,” Professor Canak said. “There’s going to be a strong oppositional response. But if the U.A.W. wins here, it would encourage workers hoping to unionize Nissan in Mississippi, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.”

The U.A.W. had initially hoped that Volkswagen would grant union recognition based on what it said was a majority of pro-union cards signed by the plant’s workers. But Volkswagen faced intense pressure from Senator Corker and others who opposed granting recognition through a so-called card check, asserting that a secret-ballot election would be fairer.

Mike Burton, a quality assurance worker who has set up an anti-union website, no2uaw.com, said the woes of Detroit’s automakers and the closing of the plant that Volkswagen had in Pennsylvania pointed to underlying problems with having the U.A.W. at the VW plant in Chattanooga. “The U.A.W. wouldn’t be the best partner for our company,” he said.

Mr. Burton questioned the U.A.W.’s optimism, saying that in a two-week period he collected 600 anti-U.A.W. signatures on a petition. Mr. Burton, backed by several outside anti-union groups, protested that Volkswagen was giving the U.A.W. the names and addresses of all of the plant’s workers, but would not give him the names and addresses.

Justin King, another assembly line worker, supports the union. “I feel VW would benefit from having a union,” he said. “It would give workers a voice in decisions. I think when just a few managers make decisions for thousands of people without input from those people, they don’t always make the best decisions.”

Ron Harr, president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, voiced concern about a union victory. “We believe the U.A.W. organizing at Volkswagen will make it more difficult for us from an economic development point of view as a community,” he said.

But the city’s mayor, Andy Berke, did not seem to worry.

“Chattanooga has unique assets that allow us to grow economically,” he said. “The same things that brought VW here — quality of life, a productive work force, wages that compare favorably to the rest of the country — those will still exist regardless of what happens with unionization.”

 

 

 


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