published Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

VW eyes UAW recognition at Chattanooga plant, group says

Volkswagen risks labor and political blowback if, as an anti-union group claimed Monday, the carmaker ignores February’s vote at the Chattanooga plant and aligns with the United Auto Workers, an industry analyst says.

“It’s like VW said ‘Vote’… and then not respecting it,” said Cars.com chief analyst Jesse Toprak. “It doesn’t seem like it would be smart for VW.”

The Center for Worker Freedom charged Monday that VW’s top managers are considering sidestepping the election in which workers voted by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin against recognizing the union.

Matt Patterson, who heads the anti-union group, said he heard VW is mulling the idea of letting in the union via authorization cards the UAW has claimed it garnered leading up the election. The UAW said last year it had a majority of plant workers’ signatures on cards asking for union representation.

“This weekend, I had multiple sources who are very trustworthy say that this was something VW is seriously considering,” Patterson said.

Scott Wilson, a spokesman at VW’s Chattanooga plant, said the company doesn’t comment on speculation and rumors.

Gary Casteel, the UAW’s regional director based in Lebanon, Tenn., said VW operates with a high level of integrity and has deep respect for worker rights.

“We are continuing to have productive discussions with Volkswagen and we remain committed to working with the company and its workers in Chattanooga,” he said. “We will not respond to idle speculation by anti-union groups.”

The UAW has appealed the election results and asked for a revote, saying third-party and political interference tainted the election. The National Labor Relations Board has scheduled an April 21 hearing in Chattanooga.

John Raudabaugh, a former NLRB member who now teaches law in Florida, said he believes VW would set a precedent if it chose to recognize the union after the “no” vote.

But, if the NLRB held the hearing and ordered a new election, it’s possible the UAW could submit its signed cards to VW depending on whether it indeed has a majority and the signatures are not more than a year old, he said.

Raudabaugh said if the cards are valid, “this NLRB probably would approve should VW accept them and recognize the union.”

If the NLRB rules against the UAW in the appeal, the union would have to go back and obtain a majority of signed authorization cards after the election it lost, said Raudabaugh, who was appointed to the NLRB by President George H.W. Bush.

“This is a novel question,” Raudabaugh said in an email.

An NLRB spokesman said the agency had no immediate comment on the matter.

Patterson, whose group is supported by activist Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, said some people in Chattanooga think that there will be another election if the UAW wins the appeal. If the company sidestepped the election and gave the union recognition, “it would be shameful,” he said.

Patterson said he thinks VW officials are counting on the NLRB siding with the union. If that happens, he said, VW will use that as “PR cover” to accept the authorization cards.

“I’m hearing the union is stepping up the pressure in Germany,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t look like VW wants any outcome other than the UAW.”

He said he thinks VW is interested in placating IG Metall, the big European labor union that represents the company’s workers in Germany and supported the UAW effort in Chattanooga.

Patterson also said in a Forbes column that Casteel, who headed the UAW’s organizing effort in Chattanooga, is set to become the national union’s secretary-treasurer. If true, Casteel would replace Dennis Williams, who is slated to take the union’s top job from Bob King, who can’t run for another term.

  • photo
    Workers inspect a top coat of paint on a Passat in the paint shop at the Chattanooga Volkswagen manufacturing plant in July 2013.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Toprak said he doesn’t think that VW unilaterally accepting the union would be politically correct because it would hurt labor relations at the plant.

“I’m not saying the union is right or wrong,” he said, adding that recognizing the union would be “like changing the rules of the game in the last minute and disrespecting the system.”

The Center for Worker Freedom’s charge against VW comes just a week after leaked documents showed that Tennessee economic developers offered last year nearly $300 million in financial incentives to the automaker to produce a new sport utility vehicle at the Chattanooga plant.

A sentence on the state’s offer sheet said the incentives were contingent on VW discussions about a works council at the plant being concluded to the “satisfaction” of the state. VW has said that a works council, a panel of employees who consider day-to-day plant issues such as training and safety and which it wants at the factory, requires a union under U.S. labor law.

Democratic politicians and UAW officials criticized Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other Republican officials after the documents’ release, saying the state was trying to strong-arm VW into not accepting the union. Haslam and other Republicans, such as House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, have criticized the union effort at the factory.

The UAW has asked that the April 21 NLRB date be delayed until another hearing be held on the documents revealed last week.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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