Volkswagen Workers in Tennessee Won’t Give Up the Fight for Unionization

Chris Brooks

Workers install engines in Ford vehicles at the Chicago Assembly Plant on December 1, 2010 in Chicago, Ill.

For the third time in five years, auto work­ers will vote on whether to form a union at the country’s sole Volk­swa­gen plant, locat­ed in Chat­tanooga, Tennessee.

On Tues­day, the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW) filed for an elec­tion to rep­re­sent all 1,709 of the plant’s hourly employ­ees, request­ing that the elec­tion be held on April 29 and 30.

The union’s first attempt in 2014 failed after a slim major­i­ty of work­ers vot­ed no, fol­low­ing a bar­rage of threats by politi­cians and busi­ness-backed anti-union groups.

In the sec­ond attempt, a group of 160 skilled-trades work­ers in the plant in 2015 vot­ed to join UAW Local 42. But that small­er unit has yet to secure a first contract.

Now the union is mov­ing for­ward with an elec­tion at the 1,400-acre Chat­tanooga facil­i­ty after it says it signed up 65 per­cent of the hourly work­ers, includ­ing skilled trades, on union cards.

Work­ers in the plant are like­ly to face anoth­er onslaught of threats and lies from politi­cians and anti-union groups. As of yet, the com­pa­ny has not com­ment­ed on whether it will remain neu­tral this time around.

First attempt

The UAW has long sought vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion from Volkswagen.

Under the Co-Deter­mi­na­tion Act in Ger­many, where Volk­wa­gen is based, employ­ees and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of labor hold half the seats on the automaker’s inter­na­tion­al Super­vi­so­ry Board, pro­vid­ing the union with allies in the cor­po­rate hierarchy.

In 2013, two years after the Chat­tanooga plant opened, Volk­swa­gen appeared eager to part­ner with the UAW to orga­nize the first Ger­man-style works coun­cil” in the U.S.

In the­o­ry, such a works coun­cil would con­sist of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from both labor and man­age­ment and would meet to make col­lec­tive deci­sions per­tain­ing to pro­duc­tion goals, work­ing con­di­tions, work pace, and oth­er plant issues. The idea was that this works coun­cil would oper­ate along­side a union, with a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment cov­er­ing only a hand­ful of top­ics includ­ing wages and benefits.

But Ten­nessee Repub­li­cans, who con­trolled the governor’s office and both leg­isla­tive hous­es, weighed in on the oth­er side, threat­en­ing to torch hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in gov­ern­ment assis­tance promised to the com­pa­ny if it chose to rec­og­nize the union vol­un­tar­i­ly. VW bowed to polit­i­cal pres­sure and refused to rec­og­nize the UAW with­out an autho­riza­tion election.

How­ev­er, the com­pa­ny did enter into a 22-page neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment with the union.

This deal had some down­sides for the UAW. The agree­ment barred orga­niz­ers from vis­it­ing work­ers at home to talk about the union and assess their sup­port. A non-dis­par­age­ment clause pro­hib­it­ed the union from pub­licly orga­niz­ing around the issues that work­ers faced in the plant.

Still, the UAW enjoyed a degree of employ­er neu­tral­i­ty that would have been unimag­in­able at Nis­san, Toy­ota, Mer­cedes-Benz, or BMW. VW didn’t fol­low the typ­i­cal anti-union play­book of threats, promis­es, and cap­tive-audi­ence meetings.

But if the com­pa­ny large­ly sat out the fight, cor­po­rate inter­est groups were more than hap­py to pick up the slack and fight against the union them­selves. Anti-union con­sult­ing groups backed by a host of fun­ders from anti-tax oper­a­tive Grover Norquist to region­al busi­ness­es flood­ed Chat­tanooga with anti-union news­pa­per edi­to­ri­als and radio ads, pur­chased bill­boards, and pro­duced videos on social media.

The anti-union groups also orga­nized local events fea­tur­ing promi­nent com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers includ­ing the head of the local Tea Par­ty, state leg­is­la­tors, and a right-wing pro­fes­sor at a local col­lege. Work­ers attend­ing these event were pro­vid­ed copies of the neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment, which many work­ers saw as a secret deal between the com­pa­ny and the union, and were told that the UAW had already sold them out by agree­ing to keep labor costs and pro­duc­tion com­pet­i­tive” with oth­er companies.

For­mer U.S. Sen­a­tor Bob Cork­er promised that Volk­swa­gen would expand pro­duc­tion and bring more jobs to Chat­tanooga if work­ers vot­ed down the union.

In the end, the union lost by a vote of 712 to 626, with 89 per­cent of the 1,500-worker unit par­tic­i­pat­ing in the election.

Sec­ond try

Fol­low­ing that loss, the UAW char­tered the mem­bers-only” Local 42 and con­tin­ued to push for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion, which was not forthcoming.

Even­tu­al­ly the union set­tled for anoth­er elec­tion, this time lim­it­ed to a small sub­set of the work­force: 162 skilled-trades employ­ees whose job is to main­tain machines in the plant.

This was made pos­si­ble thanks to the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board’s 2011 Spe­cial­ty Health­care rul­ing, which gave unions greater lat­i­tude to deter­mine which work­ers to include in the bar­gain­ing unit. Rather than hav­ing to run an elec­tion cov­er­ing every hourly employ­ee, the union could focus on the area of the plant where it had always had the great­est lev­el of support.

In 2015, this main­te­nance unit vot­ed 108 to 44 in favor of orga­niz­ing, giv­ing the UAW its first union elec­tion vic­to­ry at a for­eign-owned automak­er in the U.S. South.

In direct vio­la­tion of fed­er­al labor law and any pro­fessed claim to union neu­tral­i­ty, how­ev­er, Volk­swa­gen refused to bar­gain with the new­ly orga­nized unit. The com­pa­ny con­tin­ued to file appeals as the case wound its way through the NLRB and the courts over sev­er­al years.

Then Don­ald Trump was elect­ed president.

Trump appoint­ed an anti-union major­i­ty to the Labor Board, which over­turned the Spe­cial­ty Health­caredeci­sion. Fol­low­ing the Board’s rever­sal, the D.C. Cir­cuit Court ruled that the UAW elec­tion should be hand­ed back to the Trump Labor Board for review—all but guar­an­tee­ing that the UAW’s elec­tion win would be overturned.

Round three

The Chat­tanooga plant cur­rent­ly pro­duces the Pas­sat, a mid-sized sedan, and the Atlas, an SUV.

Volk­swa­gen recent­ly announced plans to spend $800 mil­lion and hire 1,000 more employ­ees at the fac­to­ry, part of a planned expan­sion aimed at pro­duc­ing a line of elec­tric vehi­cles for the North Amer­i­can mar­ket by 2022. Those plans could help to alle­vi­ate fears that the plant will close in reac­tion to unionization.

Auto Work­ers could def­i­nite­ly use some good news. The UAW, one of the most pow­er­ful pri­vate sec­tor unions to emerge from the indus­tri­al orga­niz­ing of the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, has been severe­ly weakened.

The union has lost two-thirds of its mem­ber­ship over the past four decades. It has made mas­sive con­tract con­ces­sions to employ­ers. And a recent cor­rup­tion scan­dal has rocked the upper ech­e­lons of the union’s leadership.

The union has lost sev­er­al high-pro­file orga­niz­ing dri­ves, includ­ing a rout in the 2017 elec­tion at Nissan’s plant in Can­ton, Mississippi.

A sin­gle elec­tion vic­to­ry won’t com­plete­ly reverse the UAW’s prob­lems — but a win in Chat­tanooga could pro­vide a foothold in the South.

First, though, Chat­tanooga work­ers will have to face down the inevitable onslaught of anti-union attacks.

As UAW Orga­niz­ing Direc­tor Tra­cy Romero told Volk­swa­gen work­ers at a recent meet­ing in Chat­tanooga: The politi­cians, they’re com­ing in. The bill­boards, they’re going up. The radio ads, they’re com­ing after us.

So it’s not just about sign­ing that card. It’s about know­ing that they are will­ing to take action and stand up and fight inside of that facility.”

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
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