UAW's unionizing effort at Chattanooga VW plant 'low key, low budget'

UAW's unionizing effort at Chattanooga VW plant 'low key, low budget'

September 18th, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

POLL: Do you oppose a union at the Volkswagen plant?

A worker cleans a Volkswagen logo.

A worker cleans a Volkswagen logo.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The United Auto Workers chief organizer in the region says the union's effort at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant has been as low key and low budget as he has seen.

"This is a home-grown deal," said Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director based in Lebanon, Tenn., who said there's been just two or three organizers on the ground in Chattanooga.

Senior managers for VW in Germany this spring engaged in talks with the UAW and met with UAW President Bob King and other union officials last month in Germany. Officials said those discussions are ongoing.

Last week, the UAW said a majority of the Chattanooga plant's workers have signed cards authorizing the UAW to represent them.

Karl Brauer, senior industry analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said Volkswagen officials appear to think it's best to leave the decision of a works council labor board and UAW representation up to employees.

"They'll let the workers decide their destiny," he said, noting that whatever the outcome "there's no room to complain about it."

A spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Foundation said it has been contacted by multiple VW plant workers complaining about the card-check process and worrying they won't get a chance to vote on the union and a German-style works council the UAW wants to implement at the factory.

Patrick Semmens, the foundation's vice president for public information, said the UAW's first choice is to have the company recognize the card-check majority and not have a secret-ballot vote.

"The fact is that unions generally get cards from 65 or 70 percent of employees before filing for a secret ballot vote because they know anything less and they are likely to lose the election when employees can vote in private," he said in an email. "They know that workers often sign cards as a result of pressure or because they are misled about what the card actually signifies."

Semmens said workers are told the card is just a request for an election, so people sign not knowing it can be used as a so-called vote for the union and to bypass the secret-ballot election.

"I expect that is going on in Chattanooga," he said.

But Casteel said critics of the UAW effort aren't talking about what's good for the plant's employees.

A United Auto Workers authorization card for Volkswagen workers.

A United Auto Workers authorization card for Volkswagen...

He said that VW approving the cards and recognizing the union is "the least divisive way to do it....It's as binding and as legal as any vote. If we were in any other country, they'd recognize the cards."

Casteel said the company continues to solicit signatures from workers, adding that "card signing has blossomed as of late."

"We've got a majority," he said. "The company is not disputing that. We want to keep things positive."

Casteel said that some political leaders such as U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., aren't taking time to look at the new model the UAW is talking about putting into the plant.

"He should take the time to look at what it is," he said.

Corker has said that while the UAW touts "a new model," the union is run by "the exact same people who organized Spring Hill," the Tennessee General Motors plant where the UAW represents its workforce. "I don't know how they can say they're the new UAW when the same people ... are in leadership."

Casteel said discussions between the UAW and the company will continue as they potentially hammer out what experts contend would be a first in the United States.

Brauer of Kelley Blue Book said that if the VW plant is organized by the UAW, some believe it's a potential domino and could bring other foreign-owned auto factories in the U.S. into the union fold.

"It's huge for the UAW and labor unions in general," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.