Fight over unionizing Chattanooga VW plant persists

Fight over unionizing Chattanooga VW plant persists

June 3rd, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Factory workers stand near the assembly line in the assembly center at the Chattanooga Volkswagen Plant.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Signs from the UAW's unsuccessful campaign in Chattanooga.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

POLL: Is the union effort at VW Chattanooga over?

A top Volkswagen Group works council official said Monday it will continue to work with the United Auto Workers to organize the Chattanooga plant, but a lawyer for anti-union employees said they'll be ready to fend off a new effort.

At the UAW's convention in Detroit, Frank Patta, the general secretary of VW's Global Group Works Council, said that February's election in Chattanooga was "stolen" by conservatives and political leaders, the Detroit Free Press reported.

"We lost one battle but we did not lose the entire fight .... I promise, we will go on," said Patta to a standing ovation from delegates.

The UAW lost the election last February by a vote of 712 to 626 votes, or 53 percent to 47 percent.

However, Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney for the anti-UAW group Southern Momentum, said Patta's remarks show that the global works council and the union don't respect the vote of the Chattanooga workers.

"Make no mistake, to the extent Frank Patta and the UAW want to try it again, we and the majority will be ready for them," Nicely said. "They won't catch us by surprise."

Patta, whose brother Sebastian heads human resources at the Chattanooga plant, said via a live video hookup using a German translator that union leaders in Germany remain committed to helping the UAW create a works council.

"We want a works council, an American works council," Patta said. "This is our joint vision. This is our dream."

Patta said that despite careful preparations, worker meetings and neutrality by VW management, political conservatives and other anti-union groups spent more than $2 million on the eve of the election to create the perception that workers could lose their jobs if they voted for the union, according to Automotive News.

Patta said VW works councils have been integral to VW's success by providing worker input into the way plants operate. He said they will be equally successful in the United States and may foster legislation that codifies them.

United Autoworkers President Bob King

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

"I'm convinced we will prevail," Patta said.

Nicely said he's not surprised by the VW works council official, adding that the statements epitomize "the fact they're aligned with the UAW." Anti-union workers said VW had colluded with the UAW to influence the election's results in favor of the union.

Nicely said that since the workers turned down the UAW, the time is right for VW to cooperate with the employees to set up a works council without the Detroit-based union.

He said that it would be "a shame" if the company and global works council spent time working with the UAW when it could make more productive use of the next year.

"The opportunity is ripe," Nicely said.

Federal labor law prohibits another union election at the plant for a year from the time of the last election. Also, an agreement VW signed with the UAW prohibits organizing activity at the factory for a year.

VW has works councils at nearly all its plants worldwide. The labor boards represent blue- and white-collar employees over issues such as hours or working conditions, and VW's Chattanooga plant would have become the first auto factory in the U.S. to have such an arrangement. VW officials said that under U.S. labor law, a union was needed to set up a works council.

But, a former National Labor Relations Board member said VW's Chattanooga employees can achieve all that such a labor board is set up to do without having to join a union.

"Discussions over productivity, workplace safety, working conditions, we can have those discussions," said John Raudabaugh, who is a labor law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla.

Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., both spoke out against the union, saying it would hurt economic development in the state. Corker said during the election that he was assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, VW will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture a new midsize SUV in Chattanooga.

Bill Haslam, left, and Bob Corker

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Last week, Haslam said the state has re-engaged with VW over talks about bringing the SUV to Chattanooga after the UAW dropped its appeal for a revote at the plant.

Also this week at the UAW convention, President Bob King will retire. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams is the union's nominee for president.

Williams told the Detroit Free Press last week that he is committed to continuing the organizing campaign in Chattanooga. The UAW also is trying to organize other plants of foreign automakers in the South, such as Mercedes in Alabama and Nissan in Mississippi.

However, the Birmingham News reported that longtime Mercedes employees Kirk Garner and Jim Spitzley said they and fellow union supporters have grown frustrated with the UAW's failure to file for an election after several campaigns over the years. They also cite mistakes in the current campaign.

"We're dedicated to the cause of furthering workers' rights," Garner said. "We just don't want to do it with the UAW."

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