Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Reject UAW Representation

Saturday, 15 Feb 2014 08:24 AM

By Todd Beamon and Cathy Burke

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In a stunning defeat that could accelerate the decades-long decline of the United Auto Workers, employees voted against union representation at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., plant — a factory seen as organized labor's best chance to expand in the South.

An official overseeing the vote, retired Tennessee Circuit Court Judge Sam Payne, said that a majority had voted against UAW representation by 712 to 626 — 53 percent to 47 percent.

"Needless to say, I am thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen and for our community and its future," Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who had been vociferous in opposition to unionization at the plant, said in a statement on his website.

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The plant's workers voted by paper ballot over the past three days, with individual votes hand-counted after the election closed at 8:30 p.m. on Friday. The vote was announced around 10 p.m.

The Volkswagen plant has 1,570 hourly workers. If the UAW had won, it would have marked the first time in nearly 30 years of efforts that the union had successfully organized a plant for a foreign brand in the United States.

The German-based Volkswagen, which has a history of working with unions, did not interfere with the union’s organizing effort.

Frank Fischer, the CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga said, "They have spoken, and Volkswagen will respect the decision of the majority.

"Our employees have not made a decision that they are against a works council. Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant," he added.

"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."

Shortly after the vote was announced, Gary Casteel, the UAW's regional director, vowed that the union would continue to work to unionize the plant. "We're not quitting on this," he said.

"It's unfortunate that there were outside influences," he added, referring to efforts made by Corker and the Center for Worker Freedom, a group led by conservative crusader Grover Norquist, which put up 13 anti-union billboards in the area.

"I urge VW employees to go back to building cars," Casteel said. "There are some issues that still need to be sorted out about this election."

He said the union looked forward to working with Chattanooga to develop growth and job development.

"Our commitment to Tennessee is a long-term investment," Casteel said. "We are proud of our managers and employees."

Matt Patterson, executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom, said, "The workers at Volkswagen looked at the history of this union and made the best decision for themselves, their jobs, and their community.

"In spite of the UAW’s multi-million-dollar propaganda machine, and with company and government officials and Obama’s NLRB aiding the union in every possible way, workers learned the facts and were able to make an informed decision."

Local anti-union organizers had protested the UAW from the start, reflecting deep concerns among many workers that a union would strain cordial relations with the company, which pays well by local and U.S. auto industry standards.

Mike Burton, one of the anti-union leaders, cheered the results. "Not on our watch," he exulted, adding, as did VW management, that plans to find a way for a workers council to help set rules for the factory would continue.

Craig Snyder, 42, told the Detroit Free Press he voted against the UAW because, he said, Volkswagen is the best employer he’s ever worked for.

Michael Taylor, 21, said, "I just didn’t feel like we needed an outside group coming in to represent us."

On the other side, Eddie Reel told the Free Press that UAW representation would give the plant a seat on the company's global works council and would have given plant workers a stronger voice on where future models are produced.

The loss could further dent the prestige of the UAW, whose membership has plummeted 75 percent since 1979 and now stands at just under 400,000.

Dennis Cuneo, a partner at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor law firm that represents management, said a loss would be a big setback for the union movement in the South, showing the UAW was unable to convince rank-and-file workers even with management's cooperation.

It "makes the UAW's quest to organize southern auto plants all the more difficult," he said

It also is likely to reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW cannot make significant inroads in a region that historically has been steadfastly against organized labor and where all foreign-owned assembly plants employ nonunion workers.

The vote faced fierce resistance from local Republicans and national conservative groups who warned that a UAW victory could hurt economic growth in Tennessee.

While voting was under way on Wednesday, Corker said VW would announce new investment in the plant if the UAW lost the secret ballot. He said a new mid-size SUV would be made at the plant if the union was rejected.

However. Volkswagen management denied that the vote would have any effect on the decision of where to make the vehicle — known internally as CrossBlue. The seven-passenger crossover vehicle, due in 2016, could be made in Chattanooga or Mexico.

The company is expected to make an announcement within days.

President Barack Obama waded into the discussion on Friday, accusing Republicans who opposed unionization of being more concerned about German shareholders than U.S. workers.

For VW, the stakes are high. The automaker invested $1 billion in the Chattanooga plant, which began building Passat mid-size sedans in April 2011, after being awarded more than $577 million in state and local incentives.

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