CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WWJ/AP) – This week’s unionization vote at Volkswagen’s only U.S. assembly plant is turning into a showdown between the UAW and union opponents, while the company sits on the sidelines.
“Volkswagen has made it pretty clear that, if not neutral, they may even be a little pro-UAW,” says Art Schwartz, a former General Motors negotiator who’s now president of the Ann Arbor based firm, Labor and Economics associates.
An organization called workerfreedom.org has put up several billboards in the Chattanooga area asking workers to vote against unionization. One has a photo of the crumbling Packard plant and says “Detroit. Brought to you by the UAW.”
The Detroit Free Press says some political leaders in Tennessee have threatened to withhold future incentives from the facility, if the workers vote for the union.
The UAW has been trying to organize a so-called “transplant” — a foreign-owned facility in the U.S. — for decades. Other efforts have failed. But, Volkswagen, with a history of employee representations on “works councils” has been more open to union representation.
“Other than the American companies I’ve dealt with, I’ve not dealt with a company with as much integrity as Volkswagen,” said UAW President Bob King, to reporters at an industry event earlier this year.
“Local management, there have been problems with,” said King. “But to the credit of the global management, they’ve stepped in and corrected those.”
Most Volkswagen plants are represented by a union, and virtually all of those plants have works councils. Observers say U.S. labor laws make a works council impossible without union representation.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has expressed concern that VW management has been encouraging the unionization, and has been allowing union representatives into the plant, but not opponents.
“This distinction favoring the UAW at the expense of employees opposed to union representation is of concern to us,” Haslam said in the Tuesday letter addressed to Frank Fischer, the head of the Chattanooga plant.
The main concern, says the Tennessee governor, is the state’s ability to attract other business.
“We’re just saying the same things we’ve always said – that the state has a vested interest in this,” he said. “From our viewpoint, from what we’re hearing from other companies, it matters what happens in that vote.”
“They have been hammering us, saying the cost differential to build that in Chattanooga is too great, and we’ve got to find a way to narrow that cost,” Haslam said. “Every economic study I’ve been shown says if the plant unionizes it will not lower the cost to produce a vehicle there,” he said.
Tennessee, like Michigan, is a right to work state. If the UAW wins representation at the Chattanooga plant, workers will not be forced to join the union.
The union’s professed desire is to represent all of the transplants, including plants owned by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW and Hyundai-Kia.
That, says veteran negotiator Art Schwartz, makes this vote a very important one for the UAW.
“This is the first time they’ve done an organizing drive that has not been actively resisted by management,” he said. “If they can’t win this, it’s going to put a big hole in their strategy.”
As we near the actual voting later this week, it’s hard to tell which way it will go.
“The UAW has said on several occasions, they have more than 50 percent cards signed,” said Schwartz. “Now that doesn’t mean they have 50 percent yes votes. People will often sign a card and not vote yes. They’ve been pretty confident that they’ve got enough support here.”
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