Union at Chattanooga's VW plant could help worker safety, advocates say

Union at Chattanooga's VW plant could help worker safety, advocates say

April 19th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Factory workers stand near the assembly line in the assembly center at the Chattanooga Volkswagen Plant.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Two former Chattanooga Volkswagen plant employees said Friday that working with a union could benefit current workers by bettering health and safety conditions at the factory.

The former assembly line workers, Lon Gravett and Ed Hunter, were the focus of "a solidarity fundraiser" put on by a local pro-labor group, Chattanooga for Workers, and Mercy Junction, a Presbyterian ministry.

Safety on the plant's assembly line is "a huge issue," said Chris Brooks of Chattanooga for Workers.

"Workers don't have a meaningful voice related to health and safety," he said. "It's a significant concern they have."

But a Volkswagen plant spokesman said the company is "100 percent committed" to the safety and well-being of its employees.

"For this reason, we have dedicated teams and processes set up to assure that employees are conditioned for their workplace, that all jobs are set up in a safe and ergonomic environment, and that any concerns can be raised and resolved quickly," said Scott Wilson of VW in an email.

Gravett, 46, said he left the company with an elbow injury.

"What good is it to get hurt there and this is what happens," he said.

Hunter, 43, left VW with a back injury. He said he has worked at businesses that went from a nonunion to a union shop and the health and safety standards improved with collective bargaining.

Brooks said the health and safety conditions in the plant have been not talked about largely because of a neutrality agreement VW signed with the United Auto Workers leading up to February's union vote. VW's production workers voted by a 53 to 47 percent margin to reject the union. Both Gravett and Hunter were UAW supporters.

Wilson said VW's Chattanooga plant is among the best three North American automotive manufacturers in terms of low injury rates. He said the plant incident rate is 2.94 versus an industry average of 7.50 as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wilson said the plant provides an on-site fitness center and medical clinic to support personal or work-related concerns, that every factory team has a representative on an employee-led safety committee, and hourly workers receive a quarterly bonus based in part on achieving good safety targets.

"In the rare event that an employee is injured on the job, we have comprehensive rehabilitation, job modification and return-to-work programs," he said. "No employee who was determined to be injured on the job at Volkswagen has ever had their employment terminated for that reason or failed to receive compensation for their injury."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.