The United Auto Workers, calling it "a fresh start," on Thursday set up a new local in Chattanooga that its officials believe will help it organize Volkswagen employees after a failed attempt earlier this year.
But UAW opponents discounted the union's move, with one VW employee terming it "a show" and "a song and dance."
Some plant workers believe the timing hints that the long-awaited announcement about the Chattanooga plant landing a new sport utility vehicle line is close, possibly taking place as early as next week.
Dennis Williams, the union's new president, said at a news conference that the UAW in February, after the plant vote, stated that it wouldn't give up on VW employees.
"We're keeping our promise," said Williams, standing in front of a line of about 25 blue-shirted VW employees.
The union unveiled Local No. 42 at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers offices off Bonny Oaks Drive, where the UAW has worked for several years to organize VW's Chattanooga work force. Williams said the new local will operate from the IBEW office.
Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, said Local 42 will be "run by, and for, the employees at Volkswagen."
"We've had ongoing discussions with Volkswagen and have arrived at a consensus with the company," said Casteel. "Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen's Chattanooga work force, we're confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members' union that represents those employees who join the local."
VW said in a statement that there is no "formal" agreement between the company and the union.
"Just like anywhere else in the world, the establishment of a local organization is a matter for the trade union concerned. There is no contract or other formal agreement with UAW on this matter," the statement said.
David Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam, said in a statement that the governor's office understands there is no agreement between the company and the UAW.
Just as in February, the union was rejected in a 712-626 vote, workers have sharply differing opinions.
Kay Gray, a UAW supporter, said that joining the local is "something we are doing for ourselves and our co-workers."
"The more I learned about the prospects of a union, the more I wanted this opportunity," she said.
However, Mike Burton, a VW worker who opposes the union, said the UAW is wasting its time and money again.
"It's like buying a car and leaving it at a dealership for a couple of years until you're able to drive it," he said, calling the UAW's action grandstanding and "a show."
Williams said Local 42 members will not pay union dues. Dues can't be collected until 30 days after there's a collective bargaining agreement with a company, according to the UAW.
He said such an arrangement for creating a local has been used before by the UAW, though not for "many, many years."
He said the local will work to educate VW employees and participate in charitable and other activities in Chattanooga.
UAW officials said they will ask the state to extend economic incentives to VW for a new product line at the plant.
"State officials have assured the public and the Volkswagen work force that the decision on incentives for Chattanooga is not related to whether workers exercise their right to join a union," said Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, in a statement. "We are gratified by those assurances, and the state was right to give them."
Earlier, the state offered nearly $300 million in incentives if VW created about 1,350 new jobs and brought the new vehicle line to Chattanooga's 2,700-employee plant.
Voices pro and con
Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said the UAW has "a long history of union organizers getting workers to sign up under false pretenses."
"Before VW Chattanooga workers sign up for the UAW's new local they should understand fully what they are signing up for," said Semmens, whose group fought the union ahead of the February election.
Semmens said that while there are no dues now, that may change tomorrow.
"Maybe today it seems that Local 42 is just a voluntary organization, but someday soon the UAW may use your membership card in order to get the union recognized for every worker in the plant so it can move for Detroit-style collective bargaining without ever holding a secret-ballot vote," he said.
But, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said the state has had a positive working relationship for decades with General Motors in Spring Hill, where the automaker has a unionized assembly plant.
He said the UAW could negotiate a works council, an employee labor board that VW says it wants and can't create without a union, to strengthen the state's position to compete for new auto lines at the Chattanooga plant.
Mark Cunningham, of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, said the UAW will "no doubt use this camel's nose under the tent to pressure members to join its ranks."
"All this comes despite workers having clearly rejected the union at the ballot box in a legally binding election," he said.
Cunningham added that "this collusion between VW and the union is a threat to employee freedom and sets a dangerous precedent that legally binding votes are irrelevant."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.