October 26, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
United Auto Workers Local 42 filed papers Oct. 23 with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to have skilled maintenance workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant vote on being represented by the union. A yes vote would win collective-bargaining rights for the about 165 skilled-trades workers at the plant, who repair and maintain machinery and tools.
It would also give the UAW a foothold in the Chattanooga factory, one of several in the South it has been trying to organize. Production workers there rejected the union by a 712-626 margin in February 2014. That vote was colored by Tennessee politicians threatening that the state would cut off tax breaks for the plant if the workers endorsed the union, and claiming that Volkswagen would expand manufacturing there if they voted no.
“A key objective for our local union always has been, and still is, moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multiyear contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga,” Local 42 President Mike Cantrell said in a statement. “We support our colleagues in the skilled trades as they move toward formal recognition of their unit.”
Local 42 membership voted overwhelmingly Oct. 21 to support the skilled trades employees’ decision to seek a representation election. The local has not made any decisions on whether to push for a second representation for all workers at the plant.
The local was formed in July 2014. Last December, Volkswagen recognized it as an employee organization qualifying for the highest level of the company’s three-tier “Community Organization Engagement” policy. That entitles union leaders to biweekly meetings with the company’s human resources department and monthly meetings with its Chattanooga executive committee.
That was a positive gesture on VW’s part, UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel said in the statement, but “at the end of the day, the policy cannot be a substitute for meaningful employee representation and co-determination with management."
The Chattanooga plant is the only Volkswagen manufacturing facility in the world where workers are not represented by a union. In April, Local 42 filed papers with the U.S. Department of Labor stating that more than half the plant’s about 1,500 production workers had become members.
Volkswagen has announced plans to double the number of jobs in Chattanooga, as it prepares to begin production of the new Passat SUV next year. But the newly hired workers will start off as temps working for a subcontractor and making an average of about $11.50 an hour—well below what even second-tier UAW members earn at other auto plants.
Both Casteel and Cantrell emphasized that the timing of the NLRB filing was not related to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the union said. “We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining,” Cantrell said. “We have been considering this option for some time.”