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Policy: Labor

German union leader says fight to unionize Chattanooga Volkswagen plant not over

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Tennessee,NLRB,Bob Corker,NAACP,Volkswagen,Chattanooga,UAW

Frank Patta, the general secretary of Volkswagen's Global Group Works Council, told United Auto Workers members Monday that the German labor movement was still staunchly behind unionizing Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., plant.

The UAW was rejected by the plant's workers in a February vote, but Patta rallied the union, saying, "We have lost one battle, not the fight."

"We want a works council, an American works council. This is our joint vision. This is our dream," Patta told delegates to UAW's constitutional convention in Detroit. He spoke through a translator via a video hook-up from his native Germany.

Works councils are a common feature of European businesses. Under German law, they include top corporate and union leaders and have considerable authority over many company decisions. Volkswagen has them at almost all of their facilities but not the Chattanooga one.

But U.S. labor law does not allow works councils at businesses that are not already unionized. So Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant would have to be organized in order to have a works council. UAW sought to fill that role.

Volkswagen's German union, IG Metall, used its works council leverage to help ensure that the company leaned towards UAW's bid. While Volkswagen insisted on a federally-monitored secret ballot election -- which UAW opposed -- the auto maker did give union organizers direct access to Chattanooga factory workers while refusing access to anti-union groups. Corporate officials also publicly indicated that having a works council was a necessary step before it could expand production at the plant.

Nevertheless, Chattanooga workers voted 712-626 against collective bargaining in an election concluded Feb. 14. UAW subsequently filed a complaint with the federal National Labor Relations Board, urging it to void the election. Union leaders said that comments by Tennessee Republicans, most notably Sen. Bob Corker, had "tainted" the vote.

UAW withdrew the complaint in April shortly before the National Labor Relations Board's first hearing on it, citing the refusal by Corker and other Tennessee GOP officials to testify. Union leaders have said they instead plan to try for another election in Chattanooga, which could happen as early as next year.

Patta agreed with UAW's complaint, telling the delegates: "Volkswagen behaved fairly and behaved neutrally, [but] the conservatives and anti-union forces toyed with the [workers'] fears."

Other evidence indicates the Chattanooga workers simply did not like the idea of being represented by UAW, which has long been associated with now-bankrupt Detroit. According to the Washington Post, many employees were put off by a "neutrality agreement" the union signed with Volkswagen, which indicated it would not change the company's "cost advantages" relative to other factories.

Others many have been upset by UAW's aggressive efforts to recruit them. In January, the NLRB dismissed fraud complaints filed against the UAW by eight plant workers. The board found that while there was evidence "that a few of the individuals soliciting [union support] cards may have misrepresented the purpose of the cards and/or distributed ambiguous authorization cards," this was not sufficient cause to sanction the union.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner