Policy: Labor

Workers reject UAW bid to organize Tennessee VW plant

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Tennessee,NLRB,Volkswagen,UAW

Employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, rejected the United Auto Workers' bid to organize their plant Friday, dealing a major blow to Big Labor's hopes to develop inroads to the traditionally union-averse South.

The rejection was surprising because VW officials had tacitly endorsed unionization and were cooperating with UAW in a variety of ways. They had allowed union organizers onto company property to lobby workers prior to the vote, for example, while barring groups critical of UAW. Nevertheless, plant workers rejected collective bargaining by a vote of 712-626.

Turnout was high too, with 89 percent of eligible employees voting between Wednesday and Friday. The high turnout was surprising since the plant had been closed for much of Thursday due to unusually heavy snowfall for the state.

A major factor in the workers' rejection was reportedly a clause in a "neutrality agreement" signed by UAW and VW prior to the election. The agreement said that the two would work toward "maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that [VW] enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America."

Critics contended this was proof that UAW had struck a deal with management to not bargain for higher wages and benefits, and was just trying to boost its membership. UAW denied this, saying the language was about pursuing innovation. Nevertheless, it apparently struck many workers as a proof of an already too-cozy relationship between union leaders and management.

"Needless to say, I am thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen and for our community and its future," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Corker, who served as mayor of Chattanooga, had been instrumental in bringing the German automaker to the state and had staunchly opposed unionization.

Mark Mix, president of National Right to Work, which helped organize workers opposed to unionization, said: "If UAW union officials cannot win when the odds are so stacked in their favor, perhaps they should reevaluate the product they are selling to workers."

UAW president Bob King, who had wanted a card-check election instead of the federally monitored secret ballot vote that was held, angrily blamed the loss on Republican opponents like Corker and outside conservative groups such as NRTW and Americans for Tax Reform. He told the Associated Press he may push the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the outcome.

"It's never happened in this country before that the U.S. senator, the governor, the leader of the House, the legislature here, threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with a loss of product," King said. "We'll look at all our options in the next few days."

UAW had gotten VW's help thanks to pressure from the automaker's German workers union, IG Metall. European labor law gives unions effective veto power over many company decisions. IG Metall used that clout to help its American cousins by demanding that the Chattanooga plant have a European-style, company-backed "workers council." IG Metall had threatened to block expansion of a new SUV line at the plant otherwise. Under U.S. labor law, such a council could only be allowed if the workers also had a union.

The unionization effort was opposed by many Tennessee Republican elected officials like Corker, though, who said the company would jeopardize its ability to receive state financial incentives.

Many employees were opposed, too. Eight filed charges with the NLRB claiming UAW was using fraudulent methods to get workers to sign cards saying they wanted unionization. They were represented by NTRW's legal defense foundation. NLRB attorneys recently advised the board to reject the complaint.

Ultimately, VW rejected UAW's call for a card-check election in favor of this week's NLRB-monitored secret ballot vote. A union organizer candidly admitted to The Tennessean newspaper in November that they would "probably lose" under that circumstance.

Union officials were incensed when Corker issued a statement Wednesday saying that, based on private conversations he'd had, VW would still build the SUV in Tennessee if workers opposed the union. VW officials denied having had any such conversation with Corker, but he stood by his statement.

Frank Fischer, CEO and chairman of VW Chattanooga, said in a statement Friday the company would continue to pursue a workers council, claiming — despite the vote — that employees had "great enthusiasm" for the idea: "Our goal continues to be to determine the best method for establishing a works council in accordance with the requirements of U.S. labor law to meet VW America's production needs and serve our employees’ interests."

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