The United Auto Workers on Wednesday won a legal battle for an election to organize a small group of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, potentially giving the union its best chance ever to represent employees of a foreign automaker in the South.
The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday sided with the UAW and against the German carmaker by setting Dec. 3 and 4 as election dates at the plant for 164 maintenance, or skilled trades, workers.
The determination by the NLRB's regional director essentially rejected an argument by VW, which sought to include production workers along with the maintenance employees in an election.
The United Auto Workers received the OK on Wednesday to hold an election for maintenance workers at the VW plant next month.
› When: Dec. 3-4
› Where: Factory conference center
› Times: Dec. 3, 6 a.m.-9:30 a.m. and 3 -8:30 p.m.; Dec. 4, 6 a.m.-9:30 a.m. and 3-6:30 p.m.
Source: National Labor Relations Board
The union lost an election of nearly 1,400 blue-collar workers at the assembly plant in February 2014 by a margin of 712 to 626.
Volkswagen said it's reviewing the NLRB ruling. The automaker could appeal the decision.
"The company is reviewing the content of the regional director's decision and is considering its options," VW plant spokesman Scott Wilson said.
Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary treasurer and director of the union's Transnational Department, said it's unfortunate that in the middle of VW's widening emissions scandal, weeks were spent debating workers' rights that are protected under federal law, citing an NLRB hearing earlier this month.
"Volkswagen's attempt to sidestep U.S. law was a waste of employees' time and energy, and a waste of government resources," Casteel said in a statement. "Looking ahead, our hope is that the company now will recommit to the values that made Volkswagen a great brand — environmental sustainability and true co-determination between management and employees."
Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga, said it's asking the company to respect the decision and not attempt to further interfere with the election.
"As a union, our goal always has been, and still is, moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga. There are multiple paths to collective bargaining, and this is a step in the right direction," he said.
Maury Nicely, a spokesman for a competing union at the VW plant, said an election of a small group of workers such as the maintenance employees isn't in the best interest of the company and its workers.
"At a time when VW needs unity, [the UAW] is taking advantage by driving a wedge between VW employees," said the American Council of Employees spokesman.
Dan Gilmore, a Chattanooga labor law attorney, said he's not surprised by the NLRB regional director's decision based on previous rulings that support smaller units.
"The UAW had the better argument," he said, noting the union contended the plant's skilled trades employees are "an appropriate unit" and don't need to be "the most appropriate unit."
At the same time, Gilmore said, he doesn't blame VW for seeking one election of production and maintenance employees.
What's not known is how much access VW will grant the UAW for a new election. Last year, VW and the UAW signed an extensive pre-election agreement spelling out a variety of measures both before and after the vote.
The UAW has long sought to represent employees at a foreign automaker in the South, as its membership has declined over the past couple of decades. The union has lost elections at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., but it's still actively recruiting members at the Tennessee plant as well at Nissan's Canton, Miss., factory and the Mercedes plant in Vance, Ala.
Last month, the UAW asked the NLRB to approve an election so it could represent the maintenance employees at the VW plant for collective bargaining purposes. Volkswagen, however, asked the NLRB to reject the request, saying instead it favors the full unit vote.
Maintenance employees fix and take care of the robots and other sophisticated equipment in the plant.
At a hearing this month before an NLRB hearing officer, attorneys for VW argued that maintenance employees shouldn't be carved out as a separate unit for union election purposes.
"They're embedded in production," VW lawyer Arthur Carter said. "A better term is manufacturing employees."
But Michael Schoenfeld, an attorney for the UAW, cited NLRB law and held that the skilled trades workers have job titles, wages and experience that are unique to maintenance.
"It clearly will be shown that maintenance can be readily identified as a group," Schoenfeld said. "It's a distinct group."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.