Chattanooga's Volkswagen factory seen as chance for union revival

Chattanooga's Volkswagen factory seen as chance for union revival

April 18th, 2013 by Mike Pare in Local Regional News

Volkswagen Chattanooga employees, from left, Eric Jabbar Ecton, Ed Hunter, Lon Gravett, Devin Gore and David M. Gleeson talk about their desire for a union at the automobile manufacturing plant in Enterprise South.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

WHAT IS A WORKS COUNCIL?

Common in Europe, works councils include blue- and sometimes white-collar employees who talk with company management about issues such as pay, benefits and working conditions.

UNION MEMBERS

Union affiliations of employed wage and salary workers by state:

* North Carolina, 2.9 percent

* Arkansas, 3.2 percent

* South Carolina, 3.3 percent

* Mississippi, 4.3 percent

* Georgia, 4.4 percent

* Virginia, 4.4 percent

* Tennessee, 4.8 percent

* Alabama, 9.2 percent

* U.S. average, 11.3 percent

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Chattanooga once was a union stronghold, but much of that support melted away over decades as membership fell here and nationwide.

The United Auto Workers and some Volkswagen plant employees believe the trend may be about to make a U-turn, though it's going to take a campaign to educate the Chattanooga workforce.

"They don't realize what the new UAW combined with a works council can do," said Lon Gravett, who has worked at the plant for more than two years and assembles dashboards for the Passat sedan.

Gravett and four other union supporters interviewed this week talked about what they think the UAW and a works council labor board, a first at a U.S. auto plant, could bring to the facility.

The company's German leaders may release a plan for the works council in May or June, and formal talks with a union could begin in the second half of the year if VW's managing board approves. That's expected to trigger a full-scale initiative by the UAW to organize the plant.

If VW employees in Chattanooga decide to join a union, the assembly plant could create a European-style works council potentially made up of blue- and white-collar employees to discuss work-related issues with VW management.

Union opposition

But not everyone believes that's the road the VW plant workers should travel.

Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association chief Tim Spires said there ought to be discussion and collaboration between workers and management, but a third party isn't needed.

"Traditionally our membership for the most part is nonunion," he said.

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Bill Haslam also have questioned the wisdom of a union at the plant.

And some employees have wondered about the need, citing good pay and benefits compared with other jobs in the Chattanooga area.

But Eric Jabbar Ecton, a nearly three-year VW employee who road-tests the new Passats, dismisses such attitudes.

Noting the two-year anniversary of monster tornadoes that ripped through the region two years ago, Ecton said that people who hired electricians or plumbers to help with repairs probably were dealing with union members.

"What's wrong with us as professional automakers becoming part of a union?" he asked.

"This is our baby," he said about the Passat sedan -- 2012 Motor Trend car of the year -- that he and about 3,300 other employees work on daily.

Out of the Norm

The union supporters said the Chattanooga factory is the only one of VW's 62 plants worldwide without a works council or a union presence.

"That's VW's concept," said Ed Hunter, who works in assembly at the Enterprise South industrial park plant. "We want to be like everybody else around the world. We don't want to be the ugly duckling."

According to U.S. labor law, the company can't just set up a works council, but rather a union has to be associated with it.

David Gleeson, who worked at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., for three years before coming to work at the Chattanooga factory, said new hires don't know anything about the union.

"I'll educate them, if they want to know how this works," said Gleeson, who assembles doors.

Devin Gore, who works in the paint shop, said a works council can help improve the Passat's quality.

"Without a voice in the company, you can't improve quality or production," he said.

Gravett said setting up a works council could help attract another vehicle for production in Chattanooga. He said members of VW's works council talk to top managers in Germany about where vehicles will be produced.

Chattanooga is believed to be competing with VW's Mexico operations to produce a full-size sport utility vehicle, if the automaker decides to move ahead with the project.

The UAW represented workers at Volkswagen's first U.S. plant, which opened in Westmoreland, Pa., in 1988.

The plant operated for about 10 years before shutting down. Labor unrest has been cited in news reports as one factor in the closing, but Gravett said former Westmoreland employees indicate that's not the case.

"Demand was a third of capacity" at the plant, he said.

The workers at the Chattanooga plant will be the ones to decide whether they want to organize.

If the company moves ahead, a secret-ballot election could be called, or workers may simply be asked to check a card saying they accept the UAW as their representative. Fifty percent plus one card would do the trick, officials have said.

"It's up to the workers," Gravett said. "It's not politicians or even the company."

Spires of the CRMA said he, too, believes it's a worker issue.

"Our position is that it's up to the employees of VW," he said.

Last year's rebound of manufacturing and construction helped boost overall union membership in Tennessee and Georgia by 27,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But, the gains in both states came despite a nationwide loss of nearly 400,000 union members last year.

Even with last year's gains, however, union membership across Tennessee and Georgia is down by more than a third in the past decade.

Most of the industrial union locals that once represented many area factory workers left town with the closing of major manufacturers such as Wheland Foundry, U.S. Pipe & Foundry, Cavalier Corp. and most of the former Combustion Engineering Corp. No new major manufacturers in the Chattanooga area have been organized in decades, despite attempts at DuPont, Magic Chef, Sonitrol Security and others.

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