2nd VW board member endorses UAW as fight for hearts, minds continues at Chattanooga plant

photo Volkswagen Chattanooga

View our Volkswagen/UAW special page with timeline, slideshow, local and national coverage and opinions

A Volkswagen supervisory board member is endorsing the United Auto Workers' efforts at the company's Chattanooga plant, becoming at least the second person on the powerful panel to publicly support the unionizing attempt.

But anti-UAW factory workers continue to fight the union, passing out 400 fliers at the plant that offer 10 reasons not to sign a membership card, starting with the UAW "breaking its election agreement" with VW.

The moves are the latest in the battle for the hearts and minds of the plant's work force. The UAW in February lost a unionizing election by a vote of 712 to 626, but the union took a new tack last month when it set up a non-dues-paying local near the factory.

The UAW has publicly released three letters of support from leaders of other unions, including IndustriAll, IG Metall, and the National Football League Players Association.

Potentially the most important support comes from Berthold Huber, president of IndustriAll global union and a member of VW's 20-member supervisory board, which oversees the German automaker's worldwide operations.

He said in the letter addressed to UAW Local 42 members in Chattanooga that its chartering is "a huge step forward and will enable you to defend your interests."

The UAW said recently that hundreds of VW workers have signed on as members, and an election of officers for the local is planned.

"I wish you and the UAW much success in building a democratic trade union voice for workers in Chattanooga," Huber said. "I want to personally assure you of IndustriAll's support in gaining representation at Volkswagen."

A fellow supervisory board member, Bernd Osterloh, chairman of VW's Global Works Councils, threatened after the February election to try to block further investments by the carmaker in the South if its workers aren't unionized.

Still, VW plant employee Mike Burton, a UAW opponent, said the union is violating the neutrality agreement it signed with VW before the February vote.

Under "Post-Election Obligations," the agreement says that "Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, if the UAW does not receive a majority of the valid ballots cast ... the UAW shall discontinue all organizing activities at the Chattanooga plant ... for a period of not less than one year beginning with the date of the election. ..."

"They chose to ignore the no-fly zone," Burton said.

Burton said union supporters are handing out Local 42 membership cards during work hours inside the plant.

The flier that union foes passed out last week said that "since the UAW is, once again, breaking its promises to team members and VW, it is important to know why you should not sign a union card."

The anti-UAW flier said the UAW cards are binding for at least a year and can only be voided by written request.

"If the UAW collects enough cards, it can ask VW to bring the union in without an election," it said, adding that "50 percent + 1 signed cards may mean you lose the right to vote."

In addition, the flier said that by signing a union card, a worker is obligated to obey the union's rules.

Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, said the union isn't organizing to conduct an election and denied it's breaking the election agreement.

"What we're doing now is signing members," he said. "We're not moving toward an election. I consider an organizing drive a move to a situation to go toward the election."

A recent UAW letter to VW employees said union officials are confident the company will recognize the UAW if it gains "a meaningful portion" of the work force as members of its Chattanooga local. VW has said it has no formal agreement with the UAW related to the new local.

But Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga labor lawyer who represented an anti-UAW group during the period of the election, said the union's actions are "no doubt" a breach of the neutrality agreement.

"There's no question, it's blatant organizing activity," he said.

Meanwhile, Detlef Wetzel, president of IG Metall, a union that represents VW's workers in Germany, said in his letter that it has developed "excellent relations" with the UAW.

"Secure employment and co-determination constitute the model for global success of Volkswagen," he said.

DeMaurice F. Smith, the NFL Players Association's executive director, said, "It doesn't matter if your hand is on the scrimmage line or the assembly line, you need your own organization to help co-determine your future."

Labor representatives make up half of the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker's supervisory board. VW last year entered discussions about union representation at the Chattanooga plant because U.S. law would require a works council to be created through an established union.

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