Volkswagen, labor union clash over request involving Chattanooga plant

Volkswagen employees perform checks as vehicles move down the assembly line at the Volkswagen Assembly Plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Each vehicle goes through variety of inspections before reaching the end of the assembly line.
Volkswagen employees perform checks as vehicles move down the assembly line at the Volkswagen Assembly Plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Each vehicle goes through variety of inspections before reaching the end of the assembly line.
photo UAW President Dennis Williams speaks during a news conference in 2014 in Chattanooga to announce the formation of a new UAW local for Volkswagen workers.

Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers are clashing over a request by a federal labor panel to reconsider an earlier decision in which it endorsed a micro-union at the Chattanooga auto plant.

VW, which has balked at bargaining with the UAW micro-unit, has backed the National Labor Relations Board request that a U.S. appeals court return a case involving the issue to the NLRB.

But the head of UAW Local 42 at the plant said Thursday the union "cannot and will not go backward to undo the results of a free and fair election."

The NLRB asked the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to send back the case in light of the labor panel's move last week to reverse an Obama-era decision to permit micro-unions made up of small groups of company workers.

The Republican-majority NLRB overruled an earlier standard set in a 2011 case involving Specialty Healthcare that supported micro-unions, which make it easier to unionize companies.

VW attorney Arthur Carter said in court papers supporting the NLRB's request that because the labor panel changed its policy, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that sending the case back is the proper action.

He said that "in light of the controlling case law, Volkswagen does not oppose" shifting the case from the appeals court to the NLRB.

VW has said it won't bargain with the micro-union because it wants all of its blue-collar workers to vote on organizing the Chattanooga factory.

The union lost a 2014 vote of the plant's workers. But in 2015, the UAW won another election involving a much smaller unit of workers who fix and maintain the equipment at the auto plant that makes the Passat midsize sedan and new Atlas SUV.

Steve Cochran, president of the UAW local at the Chattanooga plant, said the NLRB's recent decision to reverse itself on the 2011 Specialty Healthcare rule "has no bearing on our ability to form a union."

"Two years ago, the NLRB supervised a free and fair election at Volkswagen - and the skilled-trades employees voted overwhelmingly to designate UAW Local 42 as their representative for collective bargaining," he said in an email.

photo Mike Cantrell, the president of UAW Local 42, speaks about the union's win in an election among skilled-trades workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. The maintenance workers voted 108-44 to be represented by the UAW in collective bargaining negotiations. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Cochran said he's hopeful the federal appeals court will "uphold the rights of the hard-working men and women in Chattanooga."

Dan Gilmore, a Chattanooga labor attorney who teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the appeals court has the authority to send the case back to the NLRB for reconsideration before the judges reach a decision on the merits of the case.

When VW earlier refused to bargain with the micro-union, that resulted in an unfair labor practice charge against the automaker, which the NLRB approved. That decision is what's before the appeals court now.

Gilmore said it's difficult to predict if the court will send back the VW case, although that circuit is considered more business- friendly than others.

He also said it's hard to know what the NLRB will do if it gets the case back. The panel could decide that the question of whether the unit is appropriate was resolved in the UAW's favor and that VW committed an unfair labor practice by refusing to bargain regarding the unit, Gilmore said.

But, he added, that VW is "likely optimistic" that the board's request is a positive sign that the panel is seeking to come to a different result if given the opportunity by the court.

Still, Gilmore said, should that happen, the UAW will have the opportunity to seek its own appeal.

Cochran said the union is renewing its call for VW to meet it at the bargaining table.

"Chattanooga is the only Volkswagen plant in the world that does not have meaningful employee representation," he said. "This is a violation of the company's principles of social responsibility and an insult to all employees."

UAW President Dennis Williams said this week at a news conference in Detroit that if the NLRB moved against the VW micro union "this is about not having unions."

"That rises to a different level of how we feel about the NLRB," he said in a Reuters story. "Because we may have to go back to striking to get recognition if that's how they're going to act. We'll shut down these companies we're organizing."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.

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