After years of trying, the United Auto Workers won a breakthrough representation election at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when workers in the skilled trades voted to join the union, putting a crack in the nonunion wall around the transplants in the Southern United States for the first time.
In an election spanning two days last week, 152 of the 164 skilled trades’ employees, such as electricians and millwrights, cast ballots in the election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB said 71% of employees – 108 – voted for recognition by UAW Local 42.
The vote came nearly 20 months after the union was narrowly defeated in an election involving all hourly employees at the plant. VW intends to appeal the result, claiming any vote should have included all 1,450 hourly manufacturing employees, not just the skilled trades. The skilled trades unit comprises roughly 11% of the plant’s hourly workforce.
Regardless of the appeal, the victory markets the first time workers at a factory in the Southern U.S. owned by a European or Asian carmaker have voted to join a union since the transplants began moving to the U.S. in the 1980s.
The victory comes on the heels of charges by the NRLB against Nissan, claiming the automaker infringed on the rights of workers to wear clothes supporting unionization by implementing a uniform policy at its Canton, Mississippi, plant as well as facilities in Smyrna and Decherd, Tennessee.
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While Nissan is denying the claims, saying that the policy was voluntary, it certainly sets the stage for renewed efforts by the UAW to expand its ranks in the South. Volkswagen’s vote is the first step in that journey.
“A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga,” Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said in a statement after the results were announced by the federal National Labor Relations Board.
“We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time,” Cantrell said.
Labor laws in the U.S. allows for units within a workforce to seek recognition for collective bargaining and the UAW has said it will ask Volkswagen to begin negotiations for a new contract.
Volkswagen had sought to delay the election, claiming any bargaining unit should represent all 1,450 hourly workers at the plant, where rival employees supported by conservative groups opposed to labor unions has been contending with the UAW for employees support for the past two years.
Over the years, the UAW had failed to attract works in the Southeast, losing elections at Nissan in Tennessee in 1989 and then again 2001 and at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga in February 2014. UAW organizing drives at a Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, and Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, also failed to attract a clear majority of workers as the auto production in the Southern U.S. continued to expand.
However, the UAW, aided by pressure from I.G. Metall, the influential German metalworkers union, has persisted and laid siege to the Chattanooga plant after a narrow defeat in 2014 where it lost by fewer than 100 votes.
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Cantrell also said that the timing of the skilled trades’ election is unrelated to the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In its election petition to the NLRB, Local 42 noted that its members asked Volkswagen to recognize the local union as the bargaining representative of skilled trades’ employees in early August — more than a month before the emissions scandal was revealed.
Looking ahead, Cantrell said Local 42 will communicate immediately with Volkswagen leaders — in the U.S. and Germany — about initiating collective bargaining for the skilled trades’ employees at the earliest possible date.
The NLRB describes collective bargaining as an effort between an employer and employees to “bargain in good faith about wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, safety practices and other subjects.” After years of pressure from anti-union groups and conservative political figures, such as Tennessee’s two Republican Senators, who have opposed the UAW’s organizing efforts in Chattanooga, less than 10% of U.S. workers in the private sector are now covered by labor contracts
Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8 covering the South, lauded Volkswagen employees for exercising their rights in a representation election.
“Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress,” Curry said. “We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.”
Because of its nonunion status, the Chattanooga plant is the only Volkswagen plant in the world without representation on the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council.
Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW and director of the international union’s Transnational Department, said the UAW will continue pressing Volkswagen to fulfill an earlier commitment. In spring 2014, Volkswagen agreed to recognize a UAW local union as the representative of its members in order for the union’s members and the company to enter into collective bargaining.
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Casteel urged Volkswagen to drop its plans to appeal the outcome of the election, which is expected to be ruled against by the NRLB. The board has already shot down previous appeals of this nature from other companies.
Michael Strong contributed to this report.