The United Auto Workers local in Chattanooga has met a level of support that for the first time will enable it to start biweekly face-to-face meetings with Volkswagen officials at the factory.
VW said Monday that UAW Local 42 has signed up at least 45 percent of the plant's rank-and-file workforce, a number verified by an independent auditor hired by the automaker. The number triggers new rights for the union, giving the UAW its strongest foothold yet in the Chattanooga plant.
The next step is to have VW officially recognize the UAW, said Gary Casteel, the union's secretary-treasurer.
"In the initial conversations, the local union will remind human resources and the Chattanooga Executive Committee of the mutually agreed-upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and the UAW last spring in Germany. Among those commitments -- Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members," he said.
Casteel said UAW officials think Volkswagen "made this commitment in good faith and we believe the company will honor this commitment."
However, a rival group seeking VW's recognition said the automaker appears to be picking sides and favoring the UAW, and the company may be violating the National Labor Relations Act.
"A company can't give improper benefits to a union," said Chattanooga attorney Maury Nicely, who is working with the American Council of Employees. "In a situation like this with competing labor organizations, the company has to be careful not to give out a benefit that is unduly advantageous to one side or another."
ACE has sent a letter to Christian Koch, who heads VW's operations in Chattanooga, expressing its concerns over what it called "the unfair implementation" of a new community organization engagement policy unveiled about a month ago. The policy set guidelines for dialogue between the company and labor groups.
VW said in a statement Monday that the company will reach out to the UAW in the near future to start the discussion about the opportunities available to it under the policy.
The automaker said the UAW has reached the highest of three membership levels by gaining the signatures of at least 45 percent of the plant's eligible work force. It said the union can meet biweekly with the plant's executive committee and human resources office.
Also, the UAW can reserve and utilize on-site locations for meetings on nonwork time with staff and/or employees as reasonably needed, according to VW.
Casteel said UAW officials appreciated VW's timely response in verifying the membership level, which he stated exceeds a majority of workers at the plant. The UAW submitted its names a few weeks ago.
"Looking ahead, a cornerstone of Volkswagen's business model is employee representation and participation in the Global Group Works Council," Casteel said. "Until now, Chattanooga has been the only plant not represented on the Global Group Works Council. Chattanooga finally takes part in the Volkswagen philosophy and culture."
He said the local union will present the plant management with a September letter of intent in which the VW Global Group Works Council expressed its desire for the factory to be a UAW-represented facility.
"With this in mind, we will be working toward the process of collective bargaining with the company," Casteel said.
Mike Cantrell, the local's president and a VW employee, said his primary purpose is to gain recognition from VW.
"That's the goal ... so we can start bargaining," he said.
Cantrell said he plans to have meetings with his members, get their concerns and take those forward.
In terms of discussing money with VW officials, he said that's not something he assumes will be one of the topics. But, Cantrell said, that may come up under collective bargaining.
Sean Moss, ACE's interim president and a VW worker, said the automaker is moving forward with a process that's not fair to ACE, citing the verification of "invalid signatures," including those that were obtained by the UAW before the policy's announcement.
"Authorization cards which predate the policy could not have been obtained by the UAW as support for engagement under the terms of that policy," said Moss. He said only cards that were signed after the implementation of the policy should be allowed.
He said if outdated or revoked authorization cards are allowed to count, "the natural conclusion would be that members of VW management and the UAW have been colluding to undermine the voice of the majority of VW-Chattanooga employees."
In February, the UAW lost a vote to organize the plant's workers by 712 to 626.
Nicely said VW has refused to provide ACE with a basic list of those employees eligible for representation under the policy, something it provided to the UAW long ago.
Cantrell said both groups have gotten the same opportunity under VW's new policy.
"We learned the same requirements at the same time," he said. "I had to find out what was required. We went by the guidelines. We submitted the information in the proper order it was to be submitted."
Nicely said he believes VW would have to wait a year from last February's election to provide recognition to the UAW.
"Recognition means you're the exclusive representative of employees. No other entity can act as their representative," he said.
Nicely wouldn't say how many members ACE has or when it might submit names to VW for verification.
"We continue to get cards," he said. Nicely said a group can submit names only once every six months, and there's a discussion about whether ACE should try to get all the names it can before it makes a submission.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.