Pro-UAW Volkswagen Chattanooga workers cite safety concerns

Aric Hankins speaks with the Times Free Press at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175 on Thursday, May 23, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NOTE: More than 1,700 Volkswagen Chattanooga production and skilled trades workers will vote this week in the third union election at the plant since 2014.

A United Auto Workers victory would give the union a major win at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South for the first time, while a defeat would be seen as a significant setback for the Detroit-based union.

Workers will cast ballots Wednesday through Friday at the factory over whether to align with the UAW.

In 2014, the UAW lost an election by a margin of 712-626. About a year later, skilled trades workers approved the union by a vote of 108-44. But the company refused to bargain, saying it wanted a vote of all production and maintenance workers.

Last month, the union disavowed the smaller group and the National Labor Relations Boar approved the union's petitions for the new election.

The Times Free Press spent time with workers on both sides of the issue recently to gain their insights into the vote.


photo Phillip Holbrook speaks with the Times Free Press at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175 on Thursday, May 23, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Volkswagen Chattanooga employee Aric Hankins says he's flipping from a "no" vote in the 2014 union election to a "yes" for the United Auto Workers when employees go the polls next week.

"It's important for Volkswagen workers to have a contract," said the seven-year employee in the assembly shop, mentioning the setting and maintaining of standards inside the production plant.

Hankins said in a recent interview that he's concerned about the health and safety of workers in the factory.

"It's important to protect workers," he said. "I have concerns about it."

Phillip Holbrook, a three-year employee in the Volkswagen plant's assembly shop, also said there could be changes made for the better if the union succeeds, citing safety issues in particular.

Because of the nature of the work, repetitive use injuries can occur and he believes VW often tries to call them pre-existing injuries. Also, he cited the presence of carbon monoxide in the plant due to vehicle exhaust.

"They're not protecting their No. 1 asset," Holbrook said. "It's us on the line."

Due to conditions in the plant, Holbrook said there has been a lot of turnover. Of the near 80 people he started with, only about five remain, he said.

"It's a rotating door," Holbrook said.

Perry Kyle, who has worked at VW for more than seven years, said he was employed at a union shop before and it "benefits a regular person like me."

Kyle, who works in assembly at the factory, said he'd like to see VW include a pension plan for employees and he thinks the union could help that to happen. He said that the last three or four years seemed to have become "very negative" at the plant, such as forcing overtime work upon employees.

"I want the union to benefit me and my co-workers," Kyle said.

Hankins also cited the financial security of employees in the future, calling that issue "a big one" for workers.

He, too, would like to see a defined- benefit pension plan for production employees. Currently, VW workers participate in a 401(k) retirement program that contributes funds to a retirement plan but doesn't guarantee particular monthly benefits at retirement.

Matt Sexton moved to Chattanooga from Ohio about seven years ago to go to work at the VW factory at Enterprise South industrial park. He also has worked union jobs in the past.

"I know what they're about," Sexton said, adding that the UAW could help in terms of bettering working conditions at the factory.

He said VW's management has been telling the assembly workers to keep going "faster and faster," and such an environment creates injuries.

A union would have health and safety representatives to work with employees and the company, Sexton said.

He also had concerns about "personal time off" which workers accrue at the plant, saying the company makes it difficult to use. In addition, Sexton said, the union could help create a better bonus system for workers.

"I'd like to see a profit-sharing structure," he said.

Holbrook said that the company, while it says it's "neutral," is supporting anti-union activity during the campaign leading up to the election.

"They're throwing all these lies at us," he said. "They need to quit lying to us."

Kyle said that supervisors at the plant express anti-union views at meetings with workers, and there's no time given for discussion.

"I give my opinion anyway," he said.

Holbrook, a member of a volunteer organizing committee at the plant, said the pro-union group has been handing out leaflets. But, he said, plant security has asked him for his and his associates' badge numbers and the spelling of their names.

"They said the supervisor wanted to know," said Holbrook. "They're scared. They're trying to stop us."

Hankins said that union supporters are confident but not complacent.

"It's never a sure thing," he added. "I think a victory would be massive."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.

Volkswagen-UAW tensions