Union beefs up efforts at Volkswagen plant here

Union beefs up efforts at Volkswagen plant here

March 24th, 2012 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Efforts to organize Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant are ratcheting up as union materials were passed out to workers earlier this month, according to employees.

The union issue arose at the plant Thursday as top VW managers announced the company would create 800 more jobs this year, saying the employees will determine whether to organize.

"They will make the decision," said Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive. "We hope it will be well informed."

According to the Reuters news service, the issue also came up in a meeting with workers Thursday that was closed to the public. Reuters reported that UAW had started passing out authorization cards at the plant in an early formal step needed for union representation.

A VW employee Friday said workers interested in organizing have been distributing information and raising issues such as overtime and working hours.

"I haven't heard a lot about it," said the worker who didn't give his name.

Michele Martin, a UAW spokesman at its Detroit headquarters, declined comment Friday. But earlier, the UAW expressed renewed interest in organizing at least one of the so-called foreign transplant auto companies which have located in the South, including Volkswagen.

Jeffrey Hirsch, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an expertise in labor law, said the passing out of cards and materials is an early step in the organizing process.

"This sounds like the union testing the waters," he said.

Hirsch said the distribution of cards can be an early indication of how much or little support a union can have at a plant.

He said the union might decide to go ahead or, because organizing efforts are time-consuming and expensive, "cut its losses" if it looks as if the effort isn't working.

Hirsch said that at least 30 percent of the workers would have to say they'd like an election before the National Labor Relations Board would schedule an election among employees on any unionization effort.

Mike Randle, publisher of Southern Business and Development magazine, said that organizing efforts are tough in right-to-work states such as Tennessee.

He said the UAW has tried and failed to organize unions at both Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., plant and Toyota's factory in Georgetown, Ky.

Randle said he's not anti-union, but questioned why the UAW would be needed in auto assembly plants where workers usually earn more than typical blue-collar employees.

"What's the point?" he asked, saying auto workers "are getting compensated as well as anyone."

New production workers at VW's Chattanooga plant start at $14.50 per hour with pay rising to $19.50 per hour in three years. But workers hired by VW's contract worker company, Aerotek, start at $12.50 per hour. Still, full-time contract employees receive a slate of benefits, including medical, dental, vision, and 401(k), according to the company.

Reuters, quoting unnamed sources, reported the UAW may make an announcement about its organizing efforts in early April but it wasn't known if the effort would involve VW.

The overtime issue at VW was one that its managers talked about Thursday during the jobs announcement. They said while workers have been working overtime hours on a daily basis, that will be cut with the hiring of up to 1,000 more workers by the end of the year.

Also, in a nod to employees, VW this year started building a cover over the sidewalk used by workers to walk to the plant from the parking lot. The cover will help shield employees from rain or sunshine in what is a relatively long walk if workers park at one end of the lot.

Many of VW's plants worldwide have union representation, including some workers at its only other North American plant in Puebla, Mexico.

Bernd Osterloh, who represents labor on VW's supervisory board, said last year he is keen to see labor representation at the Chattanooga plant. However, he said he would not actively promote UAW efforts to broaden its membership there.