The United Auto Workers on Tuesday outlined next steps at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, including a plan to train up employees on works councils starting early next year.
"We need to have it up and running in the first quarter," said Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, about workshop-type classes that will tell how an American-style works council may function at the plant.
The UAW, fresh off of gaining rights from VW on Monday for bi-weekly talks with top managers and regular plant access, also will press for recognition from the automaker, though it offered no timetable.
"We don't know what the pathway is for exclusive representation [of VW's workers], but now we're in discussions with the company and not outside looking in," Casteel said.
Patrick Semmens, the National Right to Work Foundation's vice president, questioned the cards VW's independent auditor used to certify that UAW Local 42 has at least 45 percent of the plant's blue-collar workers as members. That action triggered the UAW's rights under a new VW policy.
Semmens said some of the cards were signed before VW introduced the community engagement policy for labor groups last month.
"One thing we know for a fact is that some workers didn't know they were going to be signed up for a new engagement policy," Semmens said. "It has raised red flags about the basic fairness of the whole system."
A rival labor group, the American Council of Employees, has complained to the plant's chief that VW is showing bias toward the UAW and the company may have violated the National Labor Relations Act. ACE officials said they continue to sign up members to allow it to engage in dialogue with the company.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a longtime critic of the UAW's efforts to organize VW, also questioned the process. Haslam told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he wants all major labor decisions at the VW plant made through secret ballots and not by counting union membership cards.
"We want the company to be consistent in what they've told us they are going to do," Haslam said. "They've always said that if they have a vote that has ramifications for the company it would be the way we do votes in America, which is secret ballots."
Casteel, however, said the union isn't interested in another organizing election at the plant. The UAW complained of what it called interference by Republican politicians, including Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, after the vote, which the UAW lost 712 to 626 last February.
Casteel added that the company doesn't have to wait a year from February's vote to voluntarily recognize the UAW as the exclusive representative of its workers.
"We have a relationship [with VW] and an agreement," he said, citing a commitment VW made last spring in Germany to recognize the UAW.
But, Semmens took a different view, believing VW can't recognize the UAW as its monopoly bargaining agent until that year is up next year.
"If they did ahead of that, that would definitely be a problem," he said.
Semmens said he worries the membership cards will be used "to force everyone [at the plant] into union control."
Casteel said ACE has been given the same opportunity as the UAW, and he questioned if it would quality under the NLRA as a labor group.
He said the goal for VW is to have a seat on its Global Works Council, which has representatives from nearly all of the automaker's major plants worldwide. VW has said that under U.S. labor law, a works council can't be set up without a union.
"A lot has been said about the situation in Chattanooga," Casteel said. "But one thing has never changed -- the cornerstone of Volkswagen's business model is employee representation and participation in the Global Group Works Council."
Ray Curry, who heads the UAW district that includes Tennessee, said the union's works council initiative will train Local 42 members on VW's "unique style of labor-management relations."
"The idea is to pioneer an American-style works council, with a Tennessee flavor," he said. "We'll be creating something new, and doing it in a collaborative relationship with the Global Group Works Council."
Casteel said works councils deal with working conditions inside the plant.
"Substantive matters dealing with pay and benefits are left to the union," he said.
Casteel said the training could involve providing workers with a qualification certificate in a certain area, such as health and safety.
"I'm not saying to make them a specialists, but they would understand an area of responsibility," he said.
Casteel said the works council at the VW plant could have about 10 to 12 hourly employees. In addition, he'd like to see white-collar workers involved.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.