The United Auto Workers appears to be edging closer to an up or down vote on union representation at the new Volkswagen AG manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee thanks to support from the German Metal Workers union, IG Metall.
IG Metall representatives at Volkswagen, including a member of the company’s supervisory board, have come out in favor of United Auto Workers representation in Chattanooga in a letter that was distributed to workers at the U.S. plant. Union representatives sit on the supervisory boards of German companies and have a critical role in setting company policy.
With VW’s top American executive also showing a willingness to consider a union bid this could be a breakthrough moment for the struggling union. It has seen membership shrink massively in recent decades due both to downsizing by the Detroit-based Big Three and its inability to organize at foreign-owned “transplant” assembly lines.
The pro-UAW letter sent by IG Metall surprised VW’s American-based management, which had been dead set against letting the UAW anywhere near the plant, according to one close observer, who asked not to be identified but closely has watched the UAW attempt to organize workers at other plants in the South over the years. Johnathan Browning, head of VOA marketing and distribution company, has made no secret of his opposition to the union, the observer said.
The tense relationship dates back decades, VW often blaming the union for problems at an earlier factory it operated in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania before closing it a quarter century ago.
Workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga will decide whether they want union representation, but the United Auto Workers is just one option for them, VW’s top executive in North America said recently.
After the IG Metall letter was delivered to workers in Tennessee, however, Browning said he expected workers to have a strong voice in its operations. One proposal has been for VW to set up a “works council” at the Chattanooga plant similar to those that have been established at VW’s plants in Europe.
“We certainly are interested in hearing from the employees as to whether they believe formal representation is something that they desire,” he told Reuters. “If employees vote in favor of formal representation, then it’s important to understand that there are a number of alternatives that may or may not include the UAW.”
The UAW has yet to win over Southern workers but the pressure from the German union could wind up neutralizing efforts by American managers in Chattanooga to campaign against the UAW.
Management-led anti-union campaigns have been critical in defeating union drives at other “transplants” in the South, notably a vote at the Nissan complex in Smyrna, Tennessee in 2001 and subsequent organizing efforts at Honda.
The works councils, however, have clear legal standing under both German law and European Union regulations. Similar legal groundwork does not exist in the U.S., VW officials concede privately. Any attempt by VW to create a works council at the Chattanooga plant could quickly be challenged by the UAW and its allies under the National Labor Relations Act, which is designed to make it difficult for employers to form in-house or company unions.
UAW President Bob King has already indicated during a recent interview he is prepared for such a challenge.
Securing the open support of IG Metall at Volkswagen is a victory for King, analyts said.
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, noted King has spent the better part of two years traveling the world to line up support for the UAW’s efforts to organize U.S. plants of transnational companies such as VW and Nissan. The travels have included visits to China, where VW has extensive operations, and South Korean, he said.
King also has accepted a position as a labor representative on the supervisory board of troubled Adam Opel. The appointment, which he accepted at the urging of General Motors Vice Chairman Steve Girksky, also brought the UAW in close and regular contact with top officials from the German metalworkers union.
The UAW also has launched a drive at Nissan plants in Mississippi and Tennessee. The main target is the plant in Canton, Mississippi where better than three-quarters of the plant’s workforce is African-American and the union has gained support from civil rights activists, and political figures.
Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn noted during a meeting with reporters at the New York International Auto Show that it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time the UAW tries to organize his company’s U.S. plants. Workers would decide that issue, Ghosn said, adding that the company prefers direct communication with its employees, rather than bringing in a third party such as the UAW.