United Auto Workers officials want no 'outside interference' in proposed union election at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant

Former National Labor Relations Board member says workers need information

Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Vehicles reach the end of the assembly line before they are driven the next area of the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga.
Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Vehicles reach the end of the assembly line before they are driven the next area of the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga.

United Auto Workers officials say they hope the focus of a proposed union election in coming weeks at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant is on the factory's workforce and not on outsiders.

During the 2014 election, there was "a lot of outside interference," said Steve Cochran, president of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga. "We hope that doesn't happen like the last time."

What's next

Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers are waiting for the National Labor Relations Board to decide whether to approve the holding of an election for the Chattanooga plant.

But a former National Labor Relations Board member said Chattanooga employees need to be informed about what they're voting on.

"At the end of the day it isn't about being pro- or anti-union. What's important is that every employee is at least provided information to learn if this is a good idea or not," said John Raudabaugh, who's also an attorney for the National Right to Work Foundation.

On Tuesday, a petition for a union election at the VW plant was filed with the NLRB. The petition is seeking a vote on April 29 and 30 and would be the third time for an election involving the UAW.

After the first vote in February 2014 at VW Chattanooga, which the union lost by a margin of 712-626, then-UAW President Bob King cited what he termed interference by Tennessee Republicans.

"To lose by such a close margin is very, very difficult," King said at the time. "We're also outraged by the outside interference in this election."

Then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Chattanooga resident, and Bill Haslam, who was governor at the time, were accused by the UAW of abusing their power, which they denied.

Also, Southern Momentum, an anti-UAW group that was funded by businesses and individuals, weighed into the fray leading up to the first election.

In addition, Volkswagen was under pressure from its powerful labor union in Germany, IG Metall, to grant recognition to the UAW in Chattanooga.

Brian Rothenberg of the UAW International's office in Detroit said in an interview Tuesday after the filing that the election should be "about Chattanooga workers and nobody else."

"It's about Chattanooga, not anybody else or anybody's agenda," he said.

photo Steve Cochran, president of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga

Asked about how unionizing the Chattanooga plant may give the UAW a breakthrough among foreign automakers in the South, Rothenberg returned the discussion to the local factory.

"Why wouldn't anybody not want Chattanooga workers to have the same thing Volkswagen workers worldwide have?" he asked, saying that VW's assembly plants worldwide have unions.

VW's Chattanooga plant officials have said that they "remain neutral" on the topic of a union election.

Raudabaugh said he thinks that VW is in an awkward position. He noted the prevalence of unions at other VW factories and the fact Volkswagen challenged a 2015 vote by skilled trades workers at the Chattanooga plant to align with the UAW on the basis that VW wanted an election by the full unit of employees.

"What you're looking at now is that one major source of information is essentially silent - the employer. Who's going to provide information to employees?" Raudabaugh asked.

He said he's "shocked" the UAW wants an election in Chattanooga given "the criminal corruption" in the news involving the union.

Last week, a former top UAW official in charge of the union's relations with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles pleaded guilty in a federal court in Detroit to misusing the automaker's funds for lavish spending on UAW officials. To date, seven people linked to the union and the automaker have been sentenced in the U.S. government's corruption investigation.

"It has to change its strategy," Raudabaugh said. "They don't want to bring attention and remind people of all the ongoing controversies."

But Cochran said the election is about workers assembling vehicles at the Chattanooga plant.

"Building cars isn't easy," he said. "You can't do it 50-60 years."

Rothenberg said the union also could help give workers a say in new products coming to plant for assembly.

"When you have a promise [and not a contract], a company can do whatever they want," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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