Collective bargaining victory spurs UAW towards a unionised US VW plant

By Graeme Roberts | 7 December 2015

Skilled trades workers at the VW US plant have voted for the UAW to represent them in collective bargaining

Skilled trades workers at the VW US plant have voted for the UAW to represent them in collective bargaining

Skilled trades workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant in Tennessee have voted "overwhelmingly" to designate UAW Local [branch] 42 as their representative for the purpose of initiating collective bargaining, the United Auto Workers union said.

In a two-day election last Thursday and Friday (3 and 4 December), 152 skilled trades employees cast ballots. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which supervised the election, confirmed that 71% of employees voting favoured recognition for Local 42. Federal law provides for units within a workforce to seek recognition for the purpose of achieving collective bargaining.

"A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga," said Mike Cantrell, president of Local 42. "We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time."

Cantrell reiterated that the timing of the skilled trades election was unrelated to the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In its election petition to the NLRB, Local 42 noted that its members asked Volkswagen to recognise the local union as the bargaining representative of skilled trades employees in early August - more than a month before the emissions scandal was revealed.

Cantrell said Local 42 would talk immediately with Volkswagen management  - in the US and Germany - about initiating collective bargaining for the skilled trades employees at the earliest possible date.

According to Reuters, the skilled trades workers account for about 11% of the 1,450 hourly employees at the plant which makes a version of the Passat specifically for North America.

If the UAW victory, as expected, survives an appeal by VW to the National Labor Relations Board, the 164 workers will be the first foreign-owned auto assembly plant workers to gain collective bargaining rights in the southern US, the report noted.

Observers reportedly said the victory was significant and could serve as a launching pad for the union's efforts to 'organise' other foreign owned plants in the US south.

"It gives the UAW a significant new tool in trying to organise the foreign automakers in the south. Symbolically, it's going to be huge," Dennis Cuneo, a former automotive executive who has dealt with the UAW in past organising campaigns, told Reuters.

UAW officials told the new agency the election was a result of the "frustration" of skilled trades workers not having collective bargaining rights for wages and benefits.

In mid-2014, as just-auto reported, the union narrowly lost a vote to organise the entire plant, a move strongly opposed by a local senator. VW subsequently announced it would build a new SUV at Chattanooga, adding 2,000 jobs. Production starts at the end of 2016.

UAW current president, Dennis Williams, and the president in 2014, Bob King, told Reuters comments by the senator at the time, as well as "interference" from anti-union groups, tainted the earlier election.

Officials said the UAW maintains a narrow majority of support among VW Chattanooga hourly workers but did not pursue a vote by all hourly workers now because of concern of "facing the same outside pressure that we faced last time".

VW has appealed the decision by an NLRB regional official to allow the election in Chattanooga on grounds that all of the plant's hourly workers should be included in any labour representation vote, Reuters said.

The UAW said collective bargaining is a common practice between employees and employers in the US. The NLRB describes collective bargaining as an effort between an employer and employees to "bargain in good faith about wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, safety practices and other subjects".

Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8 covering the south, commended Volkswagen employees for exercising their rights in a representation election.

"Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress," Curry said. "We're proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognise the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit."

The UAW said Local 42 has strong support among blue-collar workers in the Chattanooga plant - the only Volkswagen facility in the world that remains unrepresented on the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council, the influential body of employee leaders from around the world.

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW and director of the international union's transnational department, said the UAW would continue pressing VW to fulfill its spring 2014 commitment to recognise a UAW local union as the representative of its members in order for the union's members and the company to enter into collective bargaining.

Casteel urged Volkswagen to drop its plans to appeal the outcome of the recent election.

"It's overdue time for Volkswagen to refocus on the values that made it a successful brand - environmental sustainability and meaningful employee representation," Casteel said. "The hard-working members of UAW Local 42 stand ready to assist in the Volkswagen comeback story. Our hope is that the company now is ready to move forward in the German spirit of co-determination."