CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—The United Auto Workers lost its second attempt to organize workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, by a slightly narrower margin than the vote the union lost in 2014.
The vote, which took place June 12-14, was 833-776 against representation by UAW Local 42. The union lost the 2014 vote by a 712-626 margin.
The UAW said that Volkswagen gained extra time to hammer in an anti-union message from its legal challenges that delayed the vote. “The company ran a brutal campaign of fear and misinformation,” organizing director Tracy Romero said in a statement released by the union. “Fear of the loss of the plant; fear of their participation in the union effort; fear through misinformation about the UAW; fear about current benefits in contract negotiations. Over a period of nine weeks—an unprecedented length of time due to legal gamesmanship—Volkswagen was able to break the will of enough workers to destroy their majority.”
The union also called for changes in federal labor laws and National Labor Relations Board rules and procedures, saying they “made it almost impossible for Volkswagen workers to form a union.”
“Our labor laws are broken,” said UAW spokesperson Brian Rothenberg. “Workers should not have to endure threats and intimidation in order to obtain the right to collectively bargain. The law doesn’t serve workers, it caters to clever lawyers who are able to manipulate the NLRB process.”
Rothenberg said that system enabled the company to get away with refusing to recognize the union formed by the about 160 skilled-trades workers in 2015, and that discouraged potential union supporters. “Even when they voted, the company refused to bargain,” he said.
While the UAW represents workers at General Motors factories in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and Arlington, Texas, and at Daimler and Freightliner truck plants in North Carolina, a victory at Volkswagen would have made the Chattanooga factory the first foreign-owned auto-assembly plant in the South to go union. It remains VW’s only nonunion factory in the world. The UAW lost a vote at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi in 2017. It also formed a local at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama in 2014, but never got as far as an election. In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that the company had illegally interfered with union organizing.
The UAW had been trying to organize the Chattanooga plant, which opened in 2008, for several years. Workers narrowly rejected it in 2014, after a campaign in which several powerful state politicians, including Sen. Bob Corker, insinuated that the plant would close or lose state tax incentives if they voted yes, and that VW would have it produce more vehicle models if they stayed nonunion.
In December 2015, the skilled-trades workers voted to form a “micro-unit” represented by Local 42. They said they qualified as a separate bargaining unit on the grounds that because they maintain the plant’s machinery, their work is distinct from that of general production workers. But Volkswagen refused to recognize the union, saying it would only negotiate with a union representing the entire workforce.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled in the union’s favor, but VW appealed. When the UAW decided to mount another campaign to organize the whole plant this year, it dropped its bid to have the micro-unit recognized. Volkswagen countered that the appeals process should have to play out on that issue before the full plant could be allowed to vote.
The company, said Rothenberg, “insisted that maintenance and production vote together. So, three years later maintenance and production ask to vote, and VW stands in their way.”
On May 3, the NLRB delayed the vote indefinitely, but a few weeks later, it agreed to schedule it for June 12-14.
VW, officially neutral in the 2014 campaign, vehemently attacked the UAW this time around. It hired the union-busting law firm of Littler Mendelson.
It also held several captive-audience meetings in which company executives and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee urged workers to vote against the union, praising the company’s “direct relationship” with workers. Plant CEO Frank Fischer falsely blamed the UAW for the 1988 closing of Volkswagen’s previous U.S. plant, in Pennsylvania. Supervisors handed out flyers blaming the UAW for other plant closings, and Southern Momentum, an anti-union group run by a local lawyer, put out ads with the same accusation.
When the vote began June 12, the company barred Johan Järvklo, an election observer from its Global Works Council, according to Labor Notes.
“Works councils” are a German system in which representatives of the IG Metall union work with management to resolve production issues, separate from union representation. They are illegal under U.S. labor law unless agreed to in collective bargaining by a bona fide union.
By law, VW workers will have to wait one year before making another formal effort to organize the plant, the UAW said. Rothenberg told LaborPress it was “too soon” to say whether it would try to revive the skilled-trades micro-unit.
“Chattanooga workers drove this. Will have to see,” he said in an email.
“Ultimately this has always been about Chattanooga workers who are the only VW workers, in the world without a union,” Local 42 Chairman Steve Cochran said in the UAW statement. “If people wonder why the middle class is disappearing in this country, it’s because it is nearly impossible for workers to get access to collective bargaining.”