VW, UAW leaders agree: Chattanooga workers should decide on union

VW, UAW leaders agree: Chattanooga workers should decide on union

January 14th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

A worker fixes a logo to a Volkswagen car.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should VW unionize in Chattanooga?

United Auto Worker's President Bob King speaks at the annual Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminar near Traverse City, Mich., in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

DETROIT - Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers union leaders say they are continuing to talk about how a works council may be created in Chattanooga to help bring workers and managers together to plan car production.

But both sides say any decision about union representation at the VW plant in Chattanooga should be made by the hourly employees at the facility.

Volkswagen of America's new chief executive, in his first comments on union organizing efforts at the company's Chattanooga plant, said Monday he will accept whatever workers at the factory decide on the issue.

"Democracy is an important part of American culture," Michael Horn said at the North American International Auto Show.

Horn, who is German and replaced Jonathan Browning this week as head of VW in North America, said it's up to the plant's workers to decide what they want to do concerning United Auto Workers.

"That's a fundamental view I have personally," he said.

Browning had called for "a formal vote" by the workers at the Chattanooga factory, where VW is looking at setting up a German-style works council. The car maker said that under U.S. labor law, workers need union representation in order for the works council to be established.

United Auto Workers chief Bob King said a majority of Volkswagen plant employees in Chattanooga have signed cards supporting organizing efforts and that he isn't opposed to an election at the factory.

"Card check is the fastest way" [to recognizing the union], he said. "We're big supporters of workers having the right to decide representation. We favor elections."

King also said he doesn't want an adversarial relationship with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and he desires a collaborative one with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., who have both criticized the unionizing effort at the plant and worry about its impact on economic development in the state.

King made his remarks in a telephone interview leading up to the Detroit auto show that starts this week. He said the UAW has intentionally slowed activity surrounding organizing of the plant over the past couple of months.

"A lot of things were going on and the public attention was distracting people from the success of the facility and ... we consciously tried to de-escalate all the public stuff," he said.

King wouldn't say what the next step is in the organizing process, noting the UAW, VW management, and European union IG Metall are in talks "to finding the fairest process possible to allow employees a voice. We'll announce that jointly."

He said that VW simply accepting the signed cards is the quickest way to organize OVERSET FOLLOWS:and set up a first-ever works council at an auto plant in the United States. But there could be an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board or a private election.

"All are options available to the company and the union," said King, whose term as UAW president runs out this summer.

VW officials at the plant already have said they're in discussions with the UAW about the feasibility of setting up a German-style works council, in which a panel of both blue- and white-collar workers hash out issues such as health and safety and other work place issues. The UAW would work with VW on issues such as pay.

The automaker has said that under U.S. labor law, a union must organize workers in order to establish such a panel. Nearly all of VW's major plants have a works council.

Secret ballot

Mike Burton, a VW employee who is against UAW representation, said there ought to be a secret ballot election if the union has as many cards as it indicates.

"That's what it should come down to," he said.

If more than 50 percent want the UAW, that's the will of the employees, said Burton. He said he has helped gain signatures of more than 600 workers opposing the union.

"I say let's have a secret ballot vote," Burton said. "Let's get back to work making cars."

An estimated 1,500 to 1,600 production and skilled maintenance workers at the plant are likely to be eligible to vote, if an election is called.

While UAW is trying to organize the plant, a group of workers in Chattanooga has set up a "No2UAW" website to make known its reasons for union opposition.

King, who made it a goal of his when he became UAW chief to organize a foreign auto plant in the U.S., said the UAW's relationships with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler are the best current model of "labor-management creative problem-solving."

"I see VW as an opportunity to take that a step further," he said. "In many ways it's a new standard in the U.S. taking the co-determination model in Germany...."

While the formal structure would differ from that which exists now with the U.S. automakers, in practicality it wouldn't be that much different, King said, noting there are already joint committees at the companies.

"We want the Chattanooga plant to be extremely successful and to set the standard globally," he said.

Concerning actions some VW workers have filed against the UAW and VW, alleging they were misled and coerced, King said it's up to the federal agency to decide if an election would be held before those cases are decided.

He also said he wants to build a collaborative relationship with Gov. Haslam, who has criticized the UAW effort and maintained that the initiative already is hurting economic development in the state.

King said Haslam "knows the value of collective bargaining," citing GM's Spring Hill, Tenn., plant where workers are building cars again after assembly was shut down.

"Spring Hill would be closed today if it wasn't for collective bargaining," he said.

King said he has reached out to meet Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor who has sharply criticized the UAW and VW concerning the organizing effort.

"I'm not intentionally in an adversarial relationship," King said.

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