Time for VW to look ahead

Time for VW to look ahead

April 22nd, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Administration Law Judge Melissa Olivero packs up after announcing that the UAW is withdrawing objections filed with the National Labor Relations Board regarding February's vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, effectively terminating the NLRB review process.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

In an instant, it was done.

With the United Auto Workers' withdrawal of objections regarding February's vote on whether to authorize a union at Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant, the National Labor Relations Board hearing on the matter Monday at the Hamilton County Courthouse lasted only seconds and ended with an NLRB administrative law judge issuing an order to certify the vote.

That's as it should be since the UAW didn't have a leg to stand on in claiming Tennesseans like Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (a former Chattanooga mayor) and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, tried to influence the 712-626 vote when they offered opinions about the issue.

While national UAW President Bob King said the UAW's decision was made in the best interests of Volkswagen employees, the automaker and economic development in Chattanooga, he couldn't help but insert some venomous remarks about "the unprecedented political interference," "February's tainted election" and "the level of extreme intimidation and interference that occurred in Chattanooga."

If such were the case, the matter in front of the National Labor Relations Boards would be a slam-dunk in favor of the UAW, wouldn't it?

But if that union is truly in Volkswagen's rear-view mirror now -- and it may not be since UAW officials said they'll request a congressional investigation -- what's in front of them is even more vital.

n Although the automaker hasn't said, perhaps it was waiting for the end of the hearing in order to announce the manufacture of a new sport utility vehicle line in the Scenic City. That line, for which Chattanooga and Mexico were competing, has recently been rumored to be coming to Chattanooga.

n Any announcement of a new line will quickly rekindle talks about an incentives package from the state. A package had been bandied about last summer, but it apparently was withdrawn when state and VW folks couldn't get together to work out the details.

n Although the strong-armed UAW was turned down, VW management should immediately reach out to workers and see how they can work together for a better company, better pay and a more economically run plant.

Let's unpack those points one by one.

An announcement about a new line would mean new jobs, millions of dollars in new investment in the city and perhaps a stepped-up interest by suppliers about coming to the area.

Surely, even the UAW would concede it wants those things to happen.

A document leaked earlier this year revealed the state last August was prepared to offer VW $300 million in incentives should the automaker's works council request -- which U.S. labor law says cannot legally be set up without a union -- be resolved to the "satisfaction" of the state.

Haslam, in a no-win position here, says no incentives ever were tied to the outcome of the UAW vote, but he will look like an ingrate if, after the document was leaked and after he made it plain he wanted no part of the UAW, he doesn't provide at least some of the $300 million for the new line.

Yet, the governor already is taking heat because Haslam's $32.5 billion budget doesn't include the pay raises for teachers and state employees he promised. And any "found money" for the automaker will ruffle more than a few feathers.

Volkswagen has said it wants a works council here -- like those in most of its other plants -- in which salaried and hourly employees discuss safety, training and other issues.

Since neither the UAW nor any other union can seek another NLRB election for a year, VW executives should use the time for discussions they legally can have with employees to find a way forward on any sticking points. The company's treatment of employees, however, was rarely if ever the issue -- with most people giving it high marks -- during the run-up to the UAW vote.

Perhaps there's another "Chattanooga way" solution in the offing, a compromise in which all sides work together for the good of everyone involved.

Indeed, VW even seemed to indicate that in its statement about the UAW's withdrawal when it said one of the "important tasks" that lay ahead is setting up "a new, innovative form of co-determination in the USA."