Chattanooga VW workers seek their own union

photo The Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga has been chosen to build a new SUV.

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photo Gary Casteel

Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant could become ground zero again for U.S. organized labor efforts as a group of anti-United Auto Workers employees moves ahead with its own unionizing initiative.

"It's totally legal," said VW employee Mike Burton, an anti-UAW leader at the plant. He said the group hopes to gather enough signatures to have an election for the American Council of Employees.

It would counter UAW Local 42, which the Detroit-based union set up in June with hopes of gaining enough members that VW will recognize it.

The ACE website said its group is in a hurry because it believes VW will announce as early as today that it will give office space to Local 42 in the plant.

Scott Wilson, a VW spokesman, had no comment.

Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, discounted the independent unionizing attempt, adding that it would differ greatly from Local 42.

"What does an anti-union union offer?" he asked.

Casteel has said that the UAW already has arrived at a consensus with VW.

"Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen's Chattanooga work force, we're confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members' union that represents those employees who join the local," he said.

However, Burton said that if the American Council of Employees group collects about 500 worker signatures, it can seek an election from the company. He said the chapter collected 108 on its first day Monday.

The group's website said it wants to organize hourly and salaried workers to help the company establish a works council within the confines of U.S. law.

"That is it. We have no political agenda. We will not be doing community activities. We will not be going to Lake Winnie or giving out T-shirts and water bottles. Our focus is strictly to improve the communication between Volkswagen and we, the employees," said the website.

VW has said it wants to set up the works council, a labor board of blue- and white-collar workers that oversees day-to-day issues such as employee training and safety. The German automaker has works councils at nearly all its plants worldwide. Experts say that under U.S. labor law, a works council can't be formed without a union.

In February, the UAW lost a widely watched National Labor Relations Board election at the Chattanooga plant, 712 to 626.

A neutrality agreement signed by the UAW and VW before the February election said that if another union starts a "serious, concerted and legitimate" organizing effort, the UAW can engage in unionizing activity at the plant. Before the vote earlier this year, the UAW had been given space inside the plant.

photo Volkswagen Chattanooga employees watch as Marc Lemmon signs the UAW charter at a news conference on July 10.

Dr. John Raudabaugh, a labor law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., said the ACE group's action is unusual but innovative.

Raudabaugh, who served on the NLRB as an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, said he doesn't know why the alternative union wouldn't satisfy VW. A potential problem, he said, might be a negative reaction by the powerful German union IG Metall, which represents VW workers there and has supported the UAW.

Raudabaugh said IG Metall could perceive the ACE union as "a rebel group."

But, he said, if the objective is to form a works council and ACE wins an election, "perhaps VW and even IG Metall wouldn't object to that."

ACE said it will seek to represent both hourly and salaried workers.

"The salaried workers are also very important in this union," it said. "Their signature is just as important in expressing their desire to participate in this union. And they will be a very vital component to this union."

ACE also invited UAW members to sign its petition.

"This union will unite all of the employees at Volkswagen in Chattanooga. The past year has been very stressful with the UAW members and those who simply do not wish to have the UAW as an intimate business partner," the website said.

It said that when there is no option, the UAW starts to look pretty good, "especially when coated with many mistruths."

"Now there is the option (ACE) and we wish for everyone to be a part of something that is new and groundbreaking," the website said. "If we go down in flames, at least we tried by giving it our best shot."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.

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