Workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen assembly plant narrowly rejected a bid to organize a union under the UAW. With 89 percent of the eligible employees casting ballots over a three day period, the final vote was 712 rejecting the measure and 626 favoring a union.
The election was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and observed by retired Circuit Court Judge Sam Payne. Before the vote, management allowed interest groups both for and against unionization to enter the property, make presentations, and answer questions from workers.
The vote ended a two-year effort by the UAW to organize employees at the four-year-old plant. In September, the UAW presented Volkswagen management with a majority of signed cards by the over 1,500 hourly employees indicating they wanted to unionize.
Tennessee is a right-to-work state which allows employment at any job without being forced to join a union. Non-union members cannot have their wages garnished to a shop union that has negotiated with management for its paying members. A pro-union victory would have set a precedent for the UAW to organize with other southern-based assembly plants such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Nissan.
Volkswagen management favored a plant works council that represents both blue-collar and salaried employees and decides issues such as company bonuses and work schedules. Under U.S. law, creating a works council required a union. Despite the recent no vote, management will continue in its effort with local, state, and federal officials to create a works council.
Why did the union vote fail? UAW members presented management a majority of signed cards requesting a union. Employees voting against the union feared for their jobs and believed an organization such as the UAW offered no tangible benefits. Mike Jarvis, a plant worker who voted against the union, believed the UAW was the demise of the Detroit auto industry and added, “Look at every company that’s went [sic] bankrupt or shutdown or had an issue. What is the one common denominator with all those companies? UAW. We don’t need it.”
Professor Harley Shaiken of UC Berkley blamed the UAW defeat on statements by Senator Corker, Republican politicians, and interest groups who wanted the measure defeated. In a February 12 press conference outside the Senate chamber, Senator Corker assured his constituents that new family-sized vehicles would be built at the plant if workers rejected the UAW. Currently, only the Passat, a mid-sized sedan, is assembled in Chattanooga and there was no announcement from Volkswagen that production would expand to other vehicles. Senator Corker, the former city mayor, was influential in bringing Volkswagen to the region and has a personal interest in the plant’s future.
Fear of losing a middle-class wage played a greater role in the defeat of the UAW. Since the 1980s, people in the region have read, watched, and witnessed factories closing and jobs going overseas. Wages at the Chattanooga plant begin at $14.50 an hour and can rise to $19.50 after three years.
A UAW defeat does not settle the issue. Volkswagen management wants a works council. Creating one puts it in line with other Volkswagen plants around the world and hinders employees who want to decertify their local unions. If the UAW does not challenge the final vote or accuse the opposition of intimidation, its members will seek another vote.
“We’re not leaving Chattanooga,” said Dennis Williams, UAW secretary-treasurer and likely successor of current president Bob King. “It took seven years to organize Ford, and I will be around for at least another five.”
By Brian Yates
The Saturday Gazette Mail