Give the United Auto Workers credit: It doesn’t give up easily. But the union’s years-long effort to organize the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga once again has met with defeat. Last Friday, June 14, VW management announced that its full-time permanent workers there had voted to reject union representation. The 833-776 margin was even closer than the 712-626 “no” vote in February 2014. UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg claims the outcome was due to outside manipulation. This assertion resembles the rhetoric during the previous aftermath when the UAW called upon the National Labor Relations Board to nullify the result, a complaint it eventually dropped. VW headquarters in Germany, while not formally capitulating to the union as before, remains a passive partner.
The Chattanooga Volkswagen facility has been an organizing prize for the United Auto Workers since its spring 2011 grand opening. Built on a 1,400-acre site in an industrial park, the plant would assemble the Passat, a top-selling compact car in VW’s product line. Motor Trend magazine, in fact, named the Passat its “Car of the Year” only months later. Volkswagen pumped about $1 billion of its own money into the state-of-the-art project, with $577 million of that defrayed by various federal, state and local government financial incentives. Production capacity, augmented by hundreds of robots, initially would be 150,000 cars a year and ultimately nearly four times that. VW management secured Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Workers would receive a starting wage and benefit package averaging about $27 an hour. To make a long story short, there was a lot riding on this project.
The list of hopefuls included the United Auto Workers. Organizing workers in the heart of the nonunion South could be a catalyst for reversing the long decline in UAW membership from about 1.5 million in the late-1970s to less than 400,000. UAW organizers sensed a major representation victory was in their grasp. The facility already had proven to be self-sustaining. By the end of the spring of 2013, more than 250,000 Passats had rolled off the final assembly line. What especially buoyed union hopes was that Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany was very open to unionism in Chattanooga as long as a joint employer-employee works council could be established. Such councils are a standard workplace arrangement in German industry. They are designed to enable management and workers to resolve disputes before they turn nasty. By nature, a union will take the workers’ side in a discussion. VW management insisted that a joint council be established in Chattanooga. All of the company’s plants around the world at that point, save for those in China, had created a council of their own. The UAW in Chattanooga did not object as long as it got to be the employees’ sole voice. Otherwise, the council would constitute an illegal “company union.”
During late 2013 and the start of 2014, union organizers conducted a membership card check among workers at the facility. After that campaign, they asserted, though without verification, that they had collected signed pledge cards from a majority of potentially affected workers. Volkswagen was prepared to recognize the UAW as a collective bargaining agent on that basis alone. However, many employees weren’t. And these dissenters had evidence that many of those signatures in support of union representation were obtained through unusual high-pressure tactics. On behalf of eight such employees, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation requested that the National Labor Relations Board investigate the union’s seemingly unfair labor practices. On January 24, the board ruled that neither the union nor VW had violated federal labor laws and that employees had only nine days to state their objections to UAW representation. Just three days later, on January 27, the auto manufacturer, almost certainly under heavy union pressure, signed a neutrality agreement barring it from criticizing the UAW. The union, satisfied that VW would not influence employees, moved to schedule an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.
Tennessee political leaders, however, were not bound by any neutrality agreement. And some spoke out against United Auto Workers representation. Republican Senator Bob Corker, who in fact had been mayor of Chattanooga several years earlier and who played a key role in persuading Volkswagen to locate the plant in his city, weighed in prior to balloting: “Our concern is not with the works council and never has been, and Volkswagen knows that very well…It’s really been the fact that the UAW would be the implementing entity.” Republican Governor Bill Haslam said that UAW representation would be a “negative” for the state’s business climate.
Balloting took place during February 12-14, 2014. When the counting was done, opponents of union representation won by 712-626. The union, to understate things, was not pleased. On February 21, the UAW filed a complaint with the NLRB to invalidate the election, claiming that outside persons had launched a “firestorm of interference.” Then-President Bob King declared, “It’s an outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee.” The charge was little short of absurd. The “interference” in question was nothing more than expressions of a reasonable viewpoint, not attempts to thwart a union election in ways that violated the National Labor Relations Act. Interestingly, the union didn’t take issue with Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich writing a pro-union editorial appearing in the Chattanooga Times on the day balloting began.
The union withdrew its NLRB complaint on April 22, two months after filing it. That move likely had been prompted by pending testimony from any number of workers at the Chattanooga plant that the election result was fair and that UAW organizers used intimidation and deception to induce workers to sign union pledge cards. President King unwittingly revealed his intent during his concession statement. “The UAW,” he said, “is ready to put February’s tainted election in the rear-view mirror.” His use of the word “tainted” was a virtual giveaway that the union saw this as round one.
A second, presumably untainted election campaign happened this spring. It was well-timed from the United Auto Workers’ standpoint. The Chattanooga plant recently had expanded operations to include a production line for the new, mid-sized Atlas SUV. Volkswagen this January announced plans to invest $800 million in a new electric vehicle in Chattanooga, with production starting in 2022. As it was, the union already had won a partial representation victory back in December 2015, when robotics and other machine maintenance workers at the plant voted for union membership by a 108-44 margin. The union filed a petition with the NLRB for a new vote among current full-time, permanent employees on May 22. But as in 2014, victory proved elusive. Despite heavy UAW organizing, the affected workers last week voted against unionization by a thin 833-776 margin.
Predictably, union officials are citing outside interference as the explanation for the loss. “It was a very close vote,” said UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg. “The workers really believed in what they were trying to do. Our labor laws are broken. Workers shouldn’t have to endure threats and intimidation in order to gain the right to collectively bargain. The law doesn’t serve workers. It caters to clever lawyers who are able to manipulate the NLRB process.” It is hard to see the basis for such a complaint. It’s true that on April 9 the board initially rejected a UAW request for a vote. But that did not mean that the delay either had denied the union due process or altered the outcome. The union also pointed to comments from Tennessee Republican officials during the campaign. “We don’t need union bosses in Detroit telling Tennessee what is best for its workers,” said U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn. Governor Bill Lee likewise remarked, “When I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best.” These statements were blunt but they hardly constituted undue interference, let alone “threats and intimidation.”
Significantly, Volkswagen management, as in 2014, seems more resigned to the outcome than relieved by it. In an emailed statement, Frank Fischer, CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, put it this way: “Our employees have spoken. Volkswagen will respect the decision of the majority.” It may be taking liberties here, but this is the language of disappointment, not satisfaction. While the company didn’t side with the UAW, neither did it offer encouragement to workers who had reason to believe unionization wasn’t necessary. Granted, the company did not sign a neutrality agreement this time around. But neither did it stand behind dissenting employees either. Those workers had to make their case on their own. And they prevailed.