Volkswagen appeals UAW election at Chattanooga plant

Union supporters hold up signs near the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015.

In the latest salvo between Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers, VW has asked in an appeal of the union election at its Chattanooga plant this month that regulators scrap key cases on which the UAW based much of its legal footing.

Lawyers for VW said the Specialty Healthcare legal cases on which the UAW depended to organize a small group of workers should be abandoned. The decisions, lawyers argued, create "a situation in which the union, rather than the [National Labor Relations Board], is allowed to make bargaining unit decisions in any given case "

However, the union in a response said an NLRB regional director rightly decided that 164 maintenance workers at the VW plant constitute a bargaining unit.

UAW Local 42 lawyers said the maintenance workers are "an appropriate unit under Specialty Healthcare because they are readily identifiable as a group, share a community interest and do not share an overwhelming community of interest with production employees."

VW is asking the NLRB to hear the appeal and then overturn the regional director's decision which ordered the Dec. 3 and 4 election at the factory. Maintenance, or skilled trades, workers voted 108-44 to align with the UAW for collective bargaining purposes.

Last week, however, the UAW filed an unfair labor charge against VW, claiming the automaker refuses to enter into collective bargaining with the unit.

photo The UAW logo is displayed on the podium at a news conference held Thursday, July 10, 2014, at the IBEW Local 175 in Chattanooga, Tenn., to announce the formation of a new local United Auto Workers' union in Chattanooga for Volkswagen workers.
photo Dan Gilmore

Chattanooga plant spokesman Scott Wilson said VW has always placed the decision on union representation in the hands of its employees and remains neutral.

"In this case, we believe that the maintenance-only bargaining unit may not be appropriate for collective bargaining, as we have consistently held the position that our hourly production and maintenance employees share a common community of interest and should have an equal voice in their workplace," he said.

VW has argued nearly 1,400 blue-collar workers should be the appropriate bargaining unit.

But, the UAW lost an election in February 2014 of all production workers by a margin of 712-626.

The NLRB, in its 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision, revised the test it applies in determining whether a union's petitioned-for unit is appropriate.

The NLRB said when such a proposed unit is readily identifiable as a group and shares "a community of interest," an employer who seeks a larger unit must demonstrate an overwhelming community of interest between the included and excluded workers.

Chattanooga labor attorney Dan Gilmore said he doubts the NLRB will overturn the VW plant election or change existing law given its current makeup.

"With a Democrat majority on the board, I'd be surprised if they change that," said Gilmore, who also teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

VW officials, however, believe the action is "worth a shot," he said, and the automaker could seek relief from the federal appeals court if the NLRB turns it down.

VW lawyers said in its NLRB appeal the plant doesn't have a separate maintenance department, whose workers repair and maintain the factory's robots and other sophisticated equipment.

The attorneys said the UAW created "a fictional department" and the regional director in Atlanta disregarded VW's shop structure. The regional director "invented a new maintenance department out of three different subgroups embedded in Volkswagen's body, paint and assembly shops," VW said.

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.