published Saturday, February 15th, 2014

Road to Chattanooga UAW vote has been bumpy

  • photo
    Media set up as they wait for Frank Fischer, Chairman and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, and Gary Casteel, U.A.W Region 8 Director, to announce the result after Volkswagen employees voted to accept/deny representation by the United Auto Workers labor union concluding a three day election.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

VW decided in 2008 to built its only U.S. production plant in Chattanooga, which beat out sites in Alabama and Michigan. Incentives valued at $577 million, a record for an auto plant, helped convince the German automaker to pick the Enterprise South industrial park location.

The past few weeks have seen an array of twists and turns leading to the end of voting on Friday night.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., waded into the issue this week after earlier announcing that he would stay out of it until the vote was over.

On Wednesday, Corker said that VW is ready to add a sport utility vehicle line in Chattanooga if a majority of the plant's 1,500 or so hourly workers voted against the UAW. The former Chattanooga mayor stopped short of saying that UAW representation would mean that VW might go elsewhere to build its new vehicle.

"I know for sure that Chattanooga is their first choice," he said Tuesday. VW has termed Chattanooga the front-runner for the SUV; Mexico is also in the race. While VW has said the union vote and SUV location aren't connected, a site announcement is expected soon.

Corker's comments about Chattanooga drew sharp reaction from the UAW and his critics, some of whom charged that he was flirting with breaking U.S. labor law.

State legislators also spoke out, mostly on party lines.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said any added state incentives for the expansion are in jeopardy should the UAW win the vote.

Watson also hit VW, saying it promoted a "campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns."

Democrats fired back, with state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, terming the incentives remark "coercion and intimidation."

UAW Regional Director Gary Casteel, who directs the union's Southern organizing efforts, termed it "sad that when workers exercise their legal right to form a union some Tennessee politicians are threatening the economic well-being of communities and businesses just because workers want to have a voice in the future of Volkswagen in Chattanooga."

The election was called less than two weeks ago.

Dr. John Raudabaugh, a law professor and former NLRB member, said the average between the time an election is filed and when voting starts is typically around 40 days. He said VW and the UAW purposely chose a "quickie" timetable to benefit the union.

Anti-union supporters said VW permitted the UAW over the past 10 days to have more access to groups of employees.

"That's not fair," VW employee Burton said. "They're cheating at every corner."

In turn, UAW supporters criticized "outside groups" which it charged were unfairly portraying its position.

The Center for Worker Freedom, a group affiliated with tax reformer Grover Norquist, has put up more than a dozen billboards in the Chattanooga area.

Matt Patterson, who heads the center, said the aim was to call attention to the union's political activism as "overly partisan." One billboard on Highway 153, near the city's Volkswagen dealership, shows the words "United Auto Workers." But the word "Auto" was crossed out and replaced by "Obama."

Until late January, the prior couple of months had been relatively quiet at VW. The UAW had wanted VW to recognize the union using "card check." The union said it had a majority of workers' signatures on authorization cards.

But some within VW, and many outside the company, issued calls for the secret ballot election.

In January, a probe by NLRB found that the UAW and VW did not violate U.S. labor law during the union's organizing efforts at the automaker's plant last year. The NLRB investigation said the union did not violate the law in its solicitation or handling of the authorization cards.

In addition, the federal agency said VW did not provide unlawful assistance to the union or threaten to condition future work at the plant on whether employees select the UAW as its bargaining representative.

The complaints against the UAW and VW had been filed last year by some employees at the plant.

"We knew we had not done anything wrong," Casteel said.

The UAW has been working at organizing the VW plant at least since 2012. It has been trying to gain representation in an assembly plant of a foreign automaker in the South for decades, including the Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn., as the union's membership has plunged.

While the number of VW workers permitted to vote numbered around 1,500, about 2,700 work at the plant. An election agreement between the UAW and VW had defined those workers qualified to vote in the election.

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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