Chattanooga VW workers vote against joining union

Volkswagen workers in Tennessee have voted against joining the United Auto Workers, sending a strong rebuke to the country’s largest industrial union.

Employees voted 833 to 776 to reject unionization, amid concerns that unionization could temper the German automaker’s interest in Tennessee, according to the automaker. Volkswagen employs about 1,700 workers and 3,200 temporary workers at its Chattanooga plant.

“Our employees have spoken,” said Frank Fischer, president and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga in an emailed statement. “Volkswagen will respect the decision of the majority.” The election, limited to full-time employees, began June 12 and ended June 14. A total of 1,609 votes were cast in the election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, according to Volkswagen. The NLRB will need to certify the results and there will be a legal review, Fischer said.

Fisher reaffirmed the company’s commitment to Tennessee in his statement following the vote and praised the state for its support of the automaker.

“We look forward to continuing our close cooperation with elected officials and business leaders in Tennessee,” Fischer said. “We chose Chattanooga to build our American production facility for a number of reasons, but in particular because of the quality of the workforce, the commitment of the business community, and the support and investments by state and local governments. “As we have said throughout this process, our commitment to Tennessee is a long-term investment and central to the success of VW America. We look forward to working with the state of Tennessee, Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga to support job creation, growth, and economic development today and into the future.”

The UAW, based in Detroit, represents more than 5,000 people in Tennessee, including General Motors workers in Spring Hill and Memphis. Unions, which negotiate legal contracts for wages, benefits and work rules, represent 5.5% of Tennessee employees in all sectors compared to more than 14% in Michigan, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

UAW decries ‘threats and intimidation’

Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for UAW, described the process as manipulated and said that was a significant factor in the close outcome.

“It was a very close vote,” Rothenberg said. “The workers really believed in what they were trying to do. Our labor laws are broken. Workers shouldn’t have to endure threats and intimidation in order to gain the right to collectively bargain. The law doesn’t serve workers, it caters to clever lawyers who are able to manipulate the NLRB process.” Among union groups pushing for Volkswagen unionization were Center for VW Facts. Center for Union Facts, founded by Washington lobbyist Richard Berman, argued against unionization, calling UAW corrupt. Volkswagen began operations in Chattanooga in 2011 and has received about $800 million in tax breaks and public incentives. In 2014, workers rejected UAW representation, with former Sen. Bob Corker and former Gov. Bill Haslam warning a union could curb growth in Tennessee.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn had encouraged workers to vote against unionization, saying in April, “We don’t need union bosses in Detroit telling Tennessee what is best for its workers,” according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. That same month, Gov. Bill Lee pointed to his own non-union business experiences as a model. “When I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best,” Lee said, according to Labor Notes.

‘Setback’ for union ahead of negotiations with other carmakers

Arthur Schwartz, president of Labor and Economic Associates, said the results were similar to the previous vote in 2014 and were not surprising given the state’s history with union votes.

“Tennessee is not a big union state to start with,” Schwartz said. “As with the first election, there was a lot of pushback from local community and political leaders in Tennessee. People respond to that kind of pressure.” The union rejection comes ahead of UAW negotiations with GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler and follows a series of lost elections in the South over the years, he said. “It’s a setback,” Schwartz said. “They open negotiations next month and this isn’t a particularly high point for them to be opening, having just lost this election.”

Rothenberg said he did not see the Tennessee results as damaging momentum.

He noted new organization in Florida, as well as a representation at GM plants in Texas and in Spring Hill. He rejected any argument that a union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga could prompt cutbacks, given the strong profits and union presence at other VW plants.

“Why would any company spend billions of dollars in investment and turn around and leave just because there is a union?” Schwartz also said that fears unionization could threaten Tennessee jobs were likely overblown.

“I don’t think Volkswagen was going to do anything negative with that plant,” he said. Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga lawyer who has worked with Southern Momentum, a group opposed to VW joining the union, said he was not surprised to see how close the results were.

“We knew it was going to be close,” Nicely said. “It’s a good result for the Volkswagen plant, the workers at Volkswagen and for Chattanooga and East Tennessee and the state.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jamie McGee

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Published June 21, 2019