Majority Sign UAW Cards at Chattanooga VW Plant

VW Chattanooga Plant
VW Chattanooga Plant

UAW: Majority at Tennessee VW plant have signed union cards

  • Bryce G. Hoffman
  • The Detroit News

Frankfurt, GermanyA majority of workers at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga Assembly Plant in Tennessee have signed cards in support of union representation in creating a German-style works council, according to United Auto Workers President Bob King.

“We’ve gone through a very positive organizing campaign down there. Now, we’re going to work through the recognition process with Volkswagen,” King told The Detroit News on Wednesday, praising the German automaker for having “as much integrity as I’ve ever seen a global company have.”

UAW Pres. Bob King
UAW Pres. Bob King

A Volkswagen spokesman at the plant declined to comment on the UAW claim of having signed up a majority of workers, referring instead to a letter issued by the company last week that confirmed it is in talks with the union and stated: “Volkswagen values the rights of its employees in all locations to an operational representation of interests.”

If the UAW succeeds in winning recognition from VW, it would be a major victory for the union, which has tried with little success to organize foreign automakers’ factories in the South. Labor experts say it could also offer an important new paradigm for union-management relations — not just in the auto industry, but for other industries as well.

“It is a major achievement on two levels,” said labor expert Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “First, this really sets the stage for a Chattanooga model — a highly competitive, pro-union model that has implications for other non-union automakers in the U.S. Second we’re seeing the introduction of a new model that is highly successful in Germany that has implications for other industries.”

In Germany, unions negotiate wages and benefits for their members just like their counterparts in the United States. But German “co-determination” laws require the establishment of elected work councils to handle plant-specific issues, such as work rules and job security. Those same laws give labor half the seats on each company’s governing supervisory board.

“German unions are very powerful, both at the bargaining table and politically. But they also are a vital part of German competitive success,” Shaiken said. “Volkswagen utilizes this model throughout the world, and Volkswagen has become one of the world’s most successful automakers.”

VW Chattanooga Assembly Line
VW Chattanooga Assembly Line

Just how work councils would work at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant remains unclear. King said the details still need to be worked out with Volkswagen.

“Our plan is to set it up along the model of the German co-determination laws,” he said, adding that the works council itself would include representatives from both labor and management and be responsible for tackling issues such as quality, productivity, training and safety.

“There would still be periodic economic negotiations (between VW and the UAW),” he said. “I don’t think it will look all that different from what we have at GM, Ford or Chrysler.”

Winning recognition for the UAW from at least one of the major foreign automakers has been a key goal of King’s administration.

Volkswagen was widely seen as the easiest nut to crack because labor representatives on VW’s supervisory board have pressured management to enter discussions about union representation at the U.S. plant. The Chattanooga factory is alone among Volkswagen’s major assembly plants around the world without formal labor representation.

“I don’t think we would be at this point were it not for the VW works council and IG Metall,” King acknowledged.

VW Chattanooga Solar Array
VW Chattanooga Solar Array

A breakthrough in Chattanooga is unlikely to do much to change the mind of Asian automakers, which have long resisted the union’s organizing efforts. Japanese and Korean automakers, known for the efficiency of their plants, have balked at adding new layers of bureaucracy and restrictive work rules in their factories.

King hopes to change their mind by making VW’s Chattanooga plant even more successful.

“We are a different union today,” he said. “When other companies see that worker representation really adds value, they would be foolish not to embrace it.”

King also hopes to convince Germany’s other automakers — BMW AG and Daimler AG — to embrace the union.

Some politicians in the region have expressed fears that a UAW organizing efforts at Volkswagen could spread to other automakers and hurt future efforts to recruit foreign investment.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, said Tuesday that Volkswagen would become a “laughingstock” if it welcomed the UAW into its plant.

King said he has reached out to Corker and invited him to sit down and discuss how the UAW can help bring jobs to his state.

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