Today's VW vote on representation meets resistance from the company

Today's VW vote on representation meets resistance from the company

December 3rd, 2015 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

A factory worker performs diagnostics on a Passat before it is taken through a dyanometer in the assembly section of the Chattanooga Volkswagen Plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

UAW election

Voting dates and times:
› Today: 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

› Friday: 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

› Location: VW plant conference center

UAW timeline

* May 2013 - Volkswagen AG’s board member in charge of human resources says the automaker is in talks with the UAW about setting up a works council at the company’s Chattanooga plant.

* February 2014 - UAW loses vote of blue-collar workers at Chattanooga plant despite pre-election agreement with VW.

* July 2014 - UAW forms non-dues-paying Local 42 in Chattanooga to continue to organize VW workers.

* November 2014 - VW in Chattanooga unveils community engagement policy that sets guidelines for interactions with labor organizations. UAW and American Council of Employees both meet thresholds to enter talks with company.

* October 2015 - UAW petitions National Labor Relations Board for election to represent 164 maintenance workers at the VW plant.

* December 2015 - VW seeks to overturn the decision to approve the election for the smaller unit, though the vote moves ahead.

Skilled trades workers at Volkswagen will start casting ballots early today in the second United Auto Workers election at the Chattanooga assembly plant in 22 months.

This time, however, the unit the UAW is trying to organize has shrunk from nearly 1,500 hourly employees, which included production workers, to just the 164 employees who keep up and fix the plant's sophisticated equipment.

Richard Hurd, a Cornell University professor of labor relations, said the effort to gain a foothold in the VW plant with a so-called micro-unit is a new UAW strategy though not necessarily novel to unions.

"It's not the UAW's traditional practice, but it's not unusual," he said. "Teamsters for decades have organized small worker units."

But VW, unlike in the February 2014 election, isn't on board with the UAW's efforts. The company challenged the UAW petition last month before a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer, and it's appealing the decision by the NLRB regional director who ordered the election, saying it wants the larger unit to vote.

John Raudabaugh, a professor of labor law at Ave Maria School of Law, said VW's appeal isn't surprising. The company says it wants "a wall to wall unit" of blue-collar employees.

"I think quite frankly it's appropriate for an employer to do what they're doing," he said of the appeal.

Raudabaugh, a former member of the NLRB as an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, said the board found the bigger units as appropriate for decades. Only recently under President Barack Obama, he said, has the board changed its policy, encouraging smaller units and acting to "basically give unions whatever they want."

"The union probably feels it has a better chance to win," Raudabaugh said.

Hurd said that maintenance workers are organized by unions because of their skills. They're among the highest paid blue-collar employees in the Chattanooga plant.

"They have the most leverage," he said. "They're the hardest to replace. It's not unusual for them to organize."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has weighed into election, though Republican politicians and outside groups are much less active than in the February 2014 vote in which the UAW lost by a margin of 712 to 626, or 53 percent to 47 percent.

Haslam said VW has "some bigger concerns," citing the emission scandal that has hurt sales, down nearly 25 percent in the U.S. last month over a year ago.

"Our concern is mainly focused on that," he said.

In Chattanooga, Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said there are multiple paths to collective bargaining, and the election is "a step in the right direction."

"As a union, our goal always has been — and still is — moving toward collective bargaining for the the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga," he said. "We hope the company will support the same rights for employees in Chattanooga that are enjoyed by our Volkswagen co-workers around the world."

Berthold Huber, president of the global union IndustriALL and who served as interim chairman of the Volkswagen AG supervisory board until recently, said in a letter to Local 42 that the election is "a first step."

"Your success will stand as a symbol for the beginning of a new era of industrial relations," he said.

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