NASHVILLE, Tenn. —
Workers at Volkswagen’s lone U.S. plant in Tennessee on Wednesday kicked off a three-day election that will determine whether they will be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.
If the union succeeds, the Chattanooga plant would become the first among foreign automakers in the South to unionize.
The union has voiced unusual optimism about winning because Volkswagen, unlike many U.S. companies, is not opposing the unionization drive and because UAW organizers say the majority of workers have already signed cards backing a union.
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Volkswagen said the UAW, 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-collar and blue-collar workers to foster collaboration and increase productivity.
“Volkswagen Group of America and the UAW have agreed to this common path for the election,” said Frank Fischer, chairman and chief executive of Volkswagen Chattanooga.
The billion-dollar Volkswagen assembly plant opened in 2011, aided by $577 million in state subsidies, to great fanfare. It was expected to buoy Chattanooga’s image as a place to do business. There was no whiff of unionization.
Many Tennessee lawmakers, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, have voiced concern about the UAW’s drive, warning that unionization of the plant would make it less competitive and hurt Chattanooga’s and Tennessee’s business climate.
State Republican leaders Monday accused Volkswagen of supporting the UAW and threatened to withhold any tax incentives for future expansion if workers voted to join the UAW. For Tennessee, that could mean forgoing a potential $1 billion investment.
“It has been widely reported that Volkswagen has promoted a campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced, and, quite frankly, un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns,” state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, said in a statement sent to the Detroit Free Press.
A business-backed group put up a billboard declaring: “Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga,” while a prominent anti-union group, the National Right to Work Committee, has brought legal challenges against the UAW’s effort, asserting that VW officials improperly pressured workers to back a union.
In addition, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has set up a group, the Center for Worker Freedom, that has fought the UAW on several fronts, partly to prevent the election of labor’s Democratic allies who might increase government spending.
The UAW had initially hoped 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 Corker and others who opposed granting recognition through a so-called card check, asserting that a secret-ballot election would be fairer.
The election will be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. About 1,500 of Volkswagen’s 2,500 hourly workers will be eligible to vote.
UAW 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 UAW 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 workforce, shareholders and the community.”
The UAW and many labor-relations experts say it would be illegal to have a works council at a U.S. 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, such as pay, benefits and length of workweek. VW said the detailed distribution of responsibilities between the union and works council would be negotiated if the UAW wins.
Michael Cantrell, 56, an assembly-line worker, said it would be great to have a works council, because it would give the workers more of a voice and help VW by fostering a smoother-running plant.
“It gives them a great competitive advantage if they do this,” said Cantrell, who has an MBA and ran a tax-preparation company before joining Volkswagen. “They have this standardized across the world.”
Cantrell and many workers want a union even though they say Volkswagen treats them well. In their view, a union would give them a greater voice and job security and help ensure that management communicated better and was more sensitive on scheduling. Cantrell said his pay, $19.50 an hour, was fine, but “it’s not anything exorbitant.”
Mike Burton, a quality-assurance worker who has set up an anti-UAW website, 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 UAW at the VW plant in Chattanooga. “The UAW wouldn’t be the best partner for our company,” he said.
In January, Volkswagen said it will invest $7 billion in North America in the next five years as part of its quest to sell more than 1 million Volkswagen and Audi vehicles in the U.S. by 2018.
Volkswagen also has a plant in Puebla, Mexico.
Compiled from The Associated Press, The New York Times and Detroit Free Press