Stakes high as NLRB hearing on VW union vote in Chattanooga looms

Stakes high as NLRB hearing on VW union vote in Chattanooga looms

April 20th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Local Regional News

Signs encourage Volkswagen workers to vote yes for the United Auto Workers labor union. The UAW will make its case for another vote during a hearing that starts Monday.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

AT A GLANCE

• What: NLRB hearing

• When: Starts at 9 a.m. Monday

• Where: Hamilton County Courthouse, fourth floor

• At stake: Whether VW plant workers' rejection of UAW representation will stand, or the union will win a new vote

• Online coverage: Stay with www.timesfreepress.com Monday for live coverage of the hearing

Bob Corker

A plant's future. A union's survival. A company's goal to be No. 1. A city's place in the automotive world.

Much is at stake Monday, observers say, when a federal agency kicks off a hearing in Chattanooga on the United Auto Workers' effort to hold another vote to organize the city's Volkswagen plant.

"It will basically dictate the future of labor relationships in the area," said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for Cars.com. "It will set a precedent for working conditions for thousands in the area. It's certainly a critical decision."

An administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board is to hear testimony and arguments at the Hamilton County Courthouse starting at 9 a.m. Monday. The union alleges that third-party groups and Republican politicians colluded to interfere with the February election at the plant and tainted the vote.

VW production workers voted 712 to 626 to not align with the UAW after a two-year organizing effort by the union.

A number of high-profile people subpoenaed by the UAW are likely to be absent from the hearing.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in a petition to revoke his subpoena, revealed that he'll be in Ukraine and Moldova this week in his role as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Office of Senate Legal Counsel said it's the first time any member of Congress has been subpoenaed to appear or provide documents in an NLRB proceeding. An attorney for Corker said the UAW efforts are "publicity stunts" to harass UAW opponents.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, state Economic Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty and local state legislators subpoenaed by the UAW also are not expected to attend. State Attorney General Robert Cooper last week called the subpoenas overly broad and unduly burdensome and sought to quash them.

Some others of the two dozen people subpoenaed by the UAW also have said they're challenging the summonses.

Despite their absence, it still could be weeks before the outcome of the hearing is known.

For the UAW, the appeal marks ongoing efforts to organize a plant owned by a foreign auto company in the South - a goal that union President Bob King has viewed as essential for its future.

King said in a telephone interview earlier this year that the UAW's relationships with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler are the best current model of "labor-management creative problem-solving," but that working with VW is "an opportunity to take that a step further."

"In many ways it's a new standard in the U.S. taking the co-determination model in Germany," King said.

But Matt Patterson, who heads the anti-union Center for Worker Freedom, said the UAW can't afford to let the results of the election go unchallenged as its rolls have drastically shrunken over the past 30 years.

"Membership has plummeted so much," he said. "They need new members."

It was VW, meanwhile, that petitioned the NLRB for the election and signed a neutrality agreement with the UAW.

Bob King

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

Company officials have said they want a works council concept at the plant in which employees, hourly and salaried, discuss such day-to-day operational issues as safety and training. It's a model employed by the automaker at nearly all of its factories worldwide. VW said U.S. labor law requires a union for such a set-up to be legal.

"There's a lot at stake [at the hearing] for their ability to have a union," said UAW supporter Chris Brooks of the local community action group Chattanooga for Workers. He has contended that safety is an issue for employees.

Also, VW officials have said the Chattanooga plant is a key cog in vaulting the carmaker to where it wants to be - leading the world in auto sales. Ramping up U.S. sales is seen as vital for the automaker to displace current leader Toyota.

Toprak said VW needs to get past the plant's labor issue. It seems as if the company has been talking more about organized labor than making cars people want to buy, Toprak said.

"They need to figure this out, put this behind them and concentrate on why they're there - to make good cars they can sell," he said.

Mike Randle, editor of Southern Business and Development magazine, suggested that a union revote and a win in Chattanooga would put a damper on job growth not only locally but in the region.

"It's all about work stoppages," he said.

Attracting a new product to assemble at the Chattanooga plant emerged during the election and the days leading up to the vote. Landing a new product could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in Chattanooga and hundreds of new jobs.

Some VW global works council officials made comments before the election suggesting that forming a works council was important if the plant wanted to produce other VW vehicles.

"We know how important that [second] vehicle is for Chattanooga," said Bernd Osterloh, according to Reuters, though he later backed away from linking the vote and the potential new production.

Corker weighed in during the election, saying he had been assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, VW would announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new midsize SUV in Chattanooga. Corker has said that a decision about a production site has been held up due to the UAW's appeal.

The union has also raised questions about state incentives for the potential VW expansion. A leaked document showed the state last year offered VW about $300 million in incentives. The document said the offer was contingent on VW discussions about setting up the works council being concluded to the "satisfaction" of the state.

Haslam has said the incentives were never tied to the outcome of the VW vote.

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