By Al Kinzer

Between February 12 and 14, the polls will be open for the workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga to decide whether they want to be represented by the UAW in a secret-ballot election. Much is at stake for the UAW, the VW workers, and the Chattanooga community.

For the UAW, this is the first chance since 2001 to win a union election at a foreign-owned auto manufacturer in the Southeast. UAW President, Bob King, made it a goal of his presidency to win in the Southeast where Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Kia have established manufacturing plants over the past 20 years. VW is the most recent arrival to the Southeast and is the one that presented the UAW with the best opportunity.

Bob King has said on numerous occasions that the UAW has no future unless it can organize these manufacturers in the Southeast. And, he has spent his four years as UAW President trying to make it happen.

Contrary to most American management strategies concerning unions, VW’s German management has been supportive of the UAW’s efforts, and the Chattanooga plant management invited UAW organizers into the facility to promote UAW membership. All of VW’s manufacturing facilities worldwide have unions, except the new one in Chattanooga. VW’s operational structure is based on management and employee councils where the employees’ unions represent the VW workers. Such a structure is not generally found in the U.S., and U.S. labor law can make such a structure difficult unless a union is certified to represent the U.S. workers. Thus, the UAW offered VW’s German management a plan to fit VW’s operational structure: Recognize the UAW as the union representative of VW’s Chattanooga workers and the UAW can sit on VW’s management and employee councils.

The plan, however, has not gone as smoothly as the UAW wanted. A group of VW workers and the Chattanooga community have been resistant to the UAW’s efforts. The group of VW workers has opposed the UAW’s efforts and has been represented by the National Right to Work Foundation. The opposition group has campaigned against the UAW inside and outside the Chattanooga plant. It has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against both the UAW and VW management alleging that they are both violating the VW workers’ rights to decide for themselves if they want UAW representation.

The opposition group won a victory of sorts. Rather than simply recognizing the UAW based on signed union cards, VW management agreed that the best way to resolve the issue was through a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. Thus, last week VW management filed an unusual petition with the NLRB. Management, not the union, filed a petition to have the NLRB run this secret ballot election.

The Chattanooga business community and the elected officials have been opposed to the UAW. With letters to the editor in the local newspapers and with local TV press conferences, various community leaders and local elected officials have voiced opposition. The general theme has been that they are not necessarily anti-union, but are anti-UAW based on the UAW’s track record of lost jobs, closed plants, and devastation to communities. One community often mentioned is Westmoreland, Pennsylvania where VW operated its first U.S. plant from 1978 to 1988 and built the VW Rabbit. After three UAW strikes, VW closed its Westmoreland plant laying off thousands of workers. 

From February 12 through 14, the VW workers will decide how they want their work lives to be.