Nation & World News

Tenn. VW Workers Reject Move To Join Union

By Bill Chappell on February 14th, 2014

Some 1,500 workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee have voted not to join the United Auto Workers union. The tally of the three-day vote follows days of political prodding from both sides of the issue.

The 712-626 vote was a devastating blow to the UAW, which had tacit support from VW. The union had hoped to make inroads in auto plants in the South, where organizers have been striving for decades to represent factory workers.

VW had even allowed organizers into the plant to make their sales pitches.

“If they can’t win this one, what can they win?” asked Art Schwartz, a former General Motors labor negotiator who now is a consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The plant produces Passat sedans. The unionization vote has been big news in Chattanooga, where the Times Free Press newspaper was live-blogging tonight’s results.

The Volkswagen plant’s workers represented a possible lifeline to the UAW, which has seen its membership plunge from 1.5 million workers in 1979 to less than 400,000 in recent years. That’s partly because of U.S. carmakers’ layoffs, and partly because foreign automakers have opened new plants in the South, where tradition and laws have made it tough for the union to build momentum.

Here’s some context for the vote, from an AP story earlier Friday:

“A win Friday night would give the UAW its first foothold at a southern plant owned by a foreign automaker. But a victory doesn’t guarantee that other so-called transplant companies, with a dozen or so assembly plants in the south, will automatically follow.

A loss would be devastating. The union has staked its future on being able to organize southern plants and bring their wages closer to UAW-represented factories in the north.”

As the unionization issue has played out, major political figures have weighed in.

After voting began Wednesday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former mayor of Chattanooga who helped bring the carmaker to Tennessee, said, “should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.”

That statement led Frank Fischer, head of VW Chattanooga, to say there was “no connection” between the union vote and the company’s plans for the plant.

And today, President Obama spoke about the vote in a private meeting with Democratic House members. From Reuters:

“Obama said everyone was in favor of the UAW representing Volkswagen except for local politicians who ‘are more concerned about German shareholders than American workers,’ according to a Democratic aide who attended the meeting with Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives.”

The AP also brings us an interesting wrinkle in the story. Labor representatives are on VW’s supervisory board in Germany, and they’ve noticed that the Tennessee plant doesn’t have formal worker representation, unlike the company’s other plants.

“VW wants a German-style ‘works council’ in Chattanooga to give employees a say over working conditions,” the AP says. “But the company says U.S. law won’t allow it without an independent union.”

As Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reported earlier this week, the UAW already has a presence in Tennessee, due to GM building a plant. But with the new vote, Blake adds, “Republicans see Volkswagen as a potential gateway. They fear a domino effect Next it’s Mercedes, Hyundai and Nissan.”

Volkswagen has maintained neutrality over the vote, allowing the union access to the plant and asking its employees to be respectful of one another’s views. And that seems to have been the case.

One worker at the VW plant in Chattanooga told Blake that while the vote might be causing a commotion, “The only drama that I can say that is persistent is actually outside the plant.”

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