VW AT A GLANCE
› Headquarters: Wolfsburg, Germany
› Founded: May 1937
› Global sales: 10.2 million vehicles (2014)
› CEO: Matthias Mueller
› Chattanooga staff: 2,600
› Chattanooga product: Passat sedan; SUV (late 2016)
A group of Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have agreed to align with the United Auto Workers, giving the union what it calls a big win and its first foothold at a foreign automaker in the South.
The vote was 108-44, or 71 percent for the union. That was 71 percent of the 152 maintenance, or skilled trades, workers at the plant who voted in the two-day election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
Ray Curry, a UAW regional director, said the win is "a historic moment for Chattanooga and the UAW in the South."
Curry, who heads the 13-state UAW region that includes Tennessee, said the VW workers who voted for the union for collective bargaining purposes have "a great message. They've got a great story. Tonight, they've got a victory."
Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at Kelley Blue Book, termed the UAW win "a pretty big deal."
"If the UAW can have an impact and success with Southern auto companies that are foreign owned, for them to start making inroads is a pretty big deal," he said. "It has been a focus."
VW plant spokesman Scott Wilson said the company respects the right of its employees to decide the question of union representation, but it still plans to appeal to the NLRB to reconsider the decision to hold the election.
"We believe that a union of only maintenance employees fractures our workforce and does not take into account the overwhelming community of interest shared between our maintenance and production employees," he said in a statement. VW wanted all the plant's blue-collar workers to vote.
If the automaker wins the appeal to the NLRB board, the election results could be invalidated.
Mike Cantrell, who heads UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga, said plans are to start collective bargaining with the company as soon as possible.
He said employees will be asked to determine what issues will be of most importance in talks with VW. Cantrell said he still hopes the entire plant eventually falls under collective bargaining.
American Council of Employees President David Reed, head of the UAW rival at the plant, said ACE plans to continue to sign up employees with hopes of helping VW set up a works council at the factory.
"That's our goal anyway," he said about the labor panel of blue- and white-collar employees, which VW has at nearly all its plants worldwide, overseeing issues such as training, safety and employee scheduling. VW has said that U.S. labor law requires a union for a works council to be set up.
The election was the second time in less than two years the UAW tried to organize workers at the Chattanooga plant.
In February 2014, the union lost a vote of about 1,500 blue-collar workers by a 712-626 margin. But, in July 2014, it set up the non-dues-paying Local 42 in Chattanooga to continue organizing efforts at the Chattanooga plant.
In November, the VW plant installed a community engagement policy that set guidelines for interactions with labor organizations. The UAW and the ACE both met thresholds to enter talks with the company.
But in October, the UAW petitioned for the new election to represent the maintenance workers, who fix and maintain the robots and other sophisticated equipment at the plant.
This time VW objected, unlike the February 2014 vote in which it had a pre-election agreement. Officials for the automaker argued it would rather have an election of maintenance and production workers.
The company challenged the UAW petition last month before an NLRB hearing officer, and it said it plans to appeal the decision by the NLRB regional director who ordered the election. The company has 14 days in which to file the appeal, according to the NLRB.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam weighed into the pre-election fray, though Republican politicians and outside groups were much less active than in the earlier vote.
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.
Contact staff writer Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.