Lawyers for Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers sparred Tuesday over whether a proposed election to organize a small group of maintenance workers at the carmaker's Chattanooga plant will move ahead.
A decision by the National Labor Relations Board over the disputed election isn't expected for at least three to five days as testimony at a hearing in Chattanooga continues today.
Attorneys for VW argued before an NLRB hearing officer that the 164 maintenance employees, who fix the assembly plant's complex equipment, are part of factory production and shouldn't be carved out as a separate unit for union election purposes.
"They're embedded in production," said VW lawyer Arthur Carter during a daylong hearing at the federal building. "A better term is manufacturing employees."
But Michael Schoenfeld, an attorney for the UAW, cited NLRB law and held that the maintenance workers are "an appropriate unit." He said the workers have job titles, wages and experience that are unique to maintenance.
"It clearly will be shown that maintenance can be readily identified as a group," Schoenfeld said. "It's a distinct group."
The dispute arose Monday when VW said that it favors a full vote by all maintenance and production employees at the plant, which would push the number of potential voters to more than 1,400.
But, the UAW in February 2014 lost a vote of blue-collar workers at the plant by a margin of 712 to 626. Last month, the UAW asked the NLRB to approve another election so it could represent the maintenance, or skilled trades, employees for collective bargaining purposes.
On Tuesday, attorneys peppered VW employees with questions.
Ryan Rose, the VW plant's general manager of human resources, said there's no separate maintenance shop in the massive assembly plant.
"Generally, we refer to all employees as team members," he said, testifying that VW has a team member guidebook.
Rose said its bonus plan applies to production and maintenance employees.
But he said maintenance supervisors don't provide evaluations of production employees.
Chad Butts, general manager of the plant's assembly area, said production and maintenance employees work "this close" as he clasped fingers of both hands together.
He said there are common areas where production and maintenance workers can be found, such as in the plant cafe and gym.
But, Butts said, the two groups of employees don't typically take lunch together, as maintenance employees are fixing equipment when other workers are eating.
Still, he said, there is "great concern" how the two groups of employees will be able to work together if one group is unionized and the other isn't.
Stephen Cochran, a maintenance employee, said skilled trades workers such as himself train together, wear the same clothes and take breaks together.
He said he has never done production work on the job.
"I've never seen a production worker fill in for a maintenance worker," he said.
The head of VW's Chattanooga plant said last month in a letter to employees that the UAW's timing for a new election at the factory is "unfortunate" though the company will remain "neutral."
The letter from VW plant CEO Christian Koch and Executive Vice President of Human Resources Sebastian Patta cited the "challenges we are facing as a plant, Brand, and Group." VW was rocked about a month ago by the emissions-rigging scandal that has forced Volkswagen to suspend deliveries of any diesel engine Passats made in Chattanooga.
Schoenfeld, the UAW's attorney, sought to have the letter entered into the record but was denied on Tuesday.
"They made no mention that the unit was inappropriate," he said.
Contact staff writer Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.