Rival groups seeking to represent Volkswagen plant workers in Chattanooga endorsed a new company labor policy that VW unfurled Wednesday, igniting a renewed battle to gain official recognition from the automaker.
Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer for the United Auto Workers union, said the policy is "a step forward to building stronger relations between management and employees."
American Council of Employees President Sean Moss said the policy will present employees with "a clear choice" between the local independent labor group he heads and the Detroit-based UAW, which started a non-dues-paying Local 42 in Chattanooga earlier this year to represent VW workers.
The new policy doesn't set out a path toward a collective bargaining agreement for the UAW or ACE, although that could come later if VW workers decide to seek representation to negotiate an employees' contract with the company.
Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, said the VW changes could be good for the UAW and ACE as well as the automaker.
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He urged the German company not to recognize either group as the exclusive representative of its employees but permit multiple labor organizations at the plant.
"I think VW wants a new type of union and a union of the future," Vernuccio said.
The VW policy, which starts immediately, sets guidelines for interactions with labor organizations whose membership includes a significant percent of VW employees. It has three levels of engagement relative to the number of VW employees represented -- 15 percent, 30 percent, or 45 percent.
Groups representing 15 percent of the plant workforce can reserve and utilize space in the Conference Center for internal employee meetings on non-work time once per month. They also can post announcements and information in company-designated locations and meet monthly with VW's human resources office to present topics that are of general interest to their membership.
At 30 percent, groups also can invite external representatives of their organization for meetings once per month, post materials on a dedicated branded board, and meet quarterly with a member of the Volkswagen Chattanooga Executive Committee.
At 45 percent, groups additionally can reserve and utilize on-site locations for meetings on non-work time with staff and/or employees as reasonably needed, and it can meet bi-weekly with Human Resources and monthly with the executive committee.
"We recognize and accept that many of our employees are interested in external representation and we are putting this policy in place so that a constructive dialogue is possible and available for everyone," said Sebastian Patta, executive vice president for human resources for VW in Chattanooga.
An external auditor will verify the percent of a group's employee membership to determine what level of engagement has been reached.
Moss called on VW to set up "a level playing field." He said letters sent to Christian Koch, VW-Chattanooga's president, and management at company headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, ask that the representation cards which are counted from the two groups be signed and dated after Wednesday.
"We know a lot of people who initially signed UAW cards have come over to ACE," he said. "This gives them a fair opportunity to start from scratch."
Moss also said he wants VW to give ACE a list of eligible employees, saying the company has already supplied it to the UAW.
Casteel said the UAW will start working with VW so the automaker can verify the UAW's membership level in Chattanooga and the union can begin engaging the automaker inside the plant.
"When that verification has been completed, we will take advantage of the company's offer to establish regular meetings with Volkswagen human resources and the Volkswagen Chattanooga executive committee," he said.
Casteel said Local 42's membership is in excess of a majority of workers at the plant.
He said that in the first meeting with VW, the union will remind the automaker of a mutually agreed commitment made last spring that VW would recognize the UAW as the representative of its members.
Also, Casteel said, the union will present a September letter of intent in which the VW Global Works Council expressed a desire for the plant to be "a UAW-represented facility."
He said the Tennessee plant can "join their fellow team members from around the world in securing a voice in the workplace."
VW spokesman Scott Wilson said a neutral third-party such as a law or accounting firm will be called on to verify membership numbers.
"We won't get names, only numbers," he said.
Wilson also said the policy doesn't use the word "recognition."
"That's a legal term," he said. "It's not covered by this. This is about dialogue with groups."
The new policy also was hit by criticism.
Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said the policy makes it clear that VW management is determined to "prop up the UAW, even though a majority of VW workers opposed UAW unionization in a secret-ballot vote."
"One of the biggest problems is that it still leaves the door wide open for VW to recognize the UAW via a coercive card check campaign and without a secret-ballot vote," he said.
In February, the UAW lost an election of VW employees by a vote of 712-626.
VW officials have said they want to set up a works council in the plant as it has at nearly all its major plants worldwide. Such a labor board, which can be made up of blue- and white-collar employees, oversees day-to-day operational issues such as schedules, safety and training.
Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] or 423-757-6318.