VW labor leader to visit Chattanooga

VW labor leader to visit Chattanooga

October 2nd, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

New Volkswagen Passats are seen behind the Chattanooga assembly plant's building front.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should VW unionize in Chattanooga?

Tennessee's governor is slated to meet today with a key Volkswagen labor leader as the two face off over the battle to bring a German-style works council and the United Auto Workers to Chattanooga's VW plant.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who has worried that the UAW would hurt economic development efforts in the state, was expected to meet in Nashville with Bernd Osterloh, who serves on VW's powerful supervisory board and is head of the automaker's global works council.

Osterloh also is to take part in discussions with VW employees in Chattanooga about the potential set up of a works council at the factory. He is to meet with representatives from each department in the plant.

Haslam has been a vocal critic of the UAW, which maintains that union representation is needed in order to set up the works council at the plant.

The meetings come as Volkswagen of America on Tuesday reported lower September sales compared to a year ago. VW on Tuesday posted a 12.2 percent drop in September sales.

Sales of the Chattanooga-made Passat also fell sharply in September. Just 7,900 of the midsize sedan were sold in September, down 16.8 percent from a year ago, according to the German automaker.

VW posted 31,920 total sales in September and 314,833 year-to-date, down 2.6 percent through September.

"While September was an expectedly tough month for the industry, Volkswagen is seeing some stability as we are consistently pacing at a solid level of performance for the second year in a row, a level we haven't seen in 40 years," said Mark McNabb, chief operating officer of Volkswagen of America, in a statement.

VW reported that 35.2 percent of Passat sales in September were diesel models.

Osterloh had told German media this summer that he wanted to talk to some Tennessee Republicans about their opposition to UAW representation at the plant.

He said then that he was willing to engage in "confidential talks" with Republican U.S. politicians who are worried about a works council set up at VW's Chattanooga plant.

"I am happy to sit down with the Republican politicians around the table to hear where their concerns lie," he said then.

Osterloh added that whether VW's Chattanooga workers pick the UAW to represent them at the plant is their decision.

Union representation is needed to set up a works council in the U.S., according to VW.

Two of Tennessee's highest-profile Republicans, Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both have questioned the need for a works council at the Chattanooga factory.

Haslam has said the possibility of the plant becoming unionized is coming up as a topic of concern among other industries the state is trying to recruit to Tennessee.

Corker has added that "the leadership at the [Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce] believes that if the UAW established a stronghold in our area, it would be a negative."

Also Tuesday, another group is weighing into the fray over the UAW's efforts to organize the plant.

The Workforce Fairness Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group, in a letter to VW Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn, said the automaker ought to hold a secret-ballot vote of workers at the plant over the union issue.

"We believe it is in the best interests of everyone involved that workers be able to express their will for or against unionization in an environment that is safe and free from manipulation and coercion," said the letter signed by Fred Wszolek, a WFI spokesman.

It cited recent charges by eight plant employees to the National Labor Relations Board that intimidation and harassment was taking place at the factory by the UAW to gain their signatures.

"Volkswagen has the ability to protect its employees' rights without them having to pursue the complaint they filed with the NLRB," said Wszolek.

However, the UAW has called the charges a frivolous and baseless attempt to delay negotiations between the union and VW.

Gary Casteel, regional director for the UAW based in Lebanon, Tenn., said the cards signed by a majority to the workers state they are authorizing the UAW to represent them.

"It's as binding and legal as any vote," he said.

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