Volkswagen’s Chattanooga Workers Vote for Second Time Not to Join UAW

Clifford Atiyeh

From Car and Driver

  • Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tennessee, factory, which currently builds the Volkswagen Passat and Atlas, is the scene of a vote over whether workers will be represented by the United Auto Workers union.
  • The UAW has claimed Volkswagen is attempting to obstruct the union's efforts to organize its workers there; this is the second time UAW representation has been voted on at the plant.
  • Results of the vote should be available late Friday, June 14.

UPDATE 9:50 p.m.: According to a statement from the UAW that denounced VW's "brutal campaign of fear and misinformation," employees at VW’s Chattanooga plant have voted against joining the UAW for the second time in five years. It will be another year before a new election can be called. Final numbers were not yet available.

Friday marks the final day for Volkswagen Chattanooga employees to vote for representation in the United Auto Workers as the union, just two months after its vice president pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, attempts to continue to win a decades-long fight to get union representation into foreign automakers' plants.

The vote, which was last held in 2014 and rejected 712 to 626, started Wednesday and includes 1700 full-time hourly employees out of the total 3800. The remaining, ineligible employees are either salaried or contract workers. The UAW claims "legal obstruction and anti-worker activity" by Volkswagen, which, aside from joint ventures in China that are partly controlled by the state, operates its only non-union factory in Tennessee. The UAW established Local 42 several months after plant workers voted against representation and alleged interference in the election by Tennessee politicians, which led VW in November of that year to allow several labor organizations into the plant if they met a membership threshold. It's unclear how many VW employees UAW Local 42 represents, but the union filed a petition in April with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a second vote. The results will either make Volkswagen the first and only foreign-owned U.S.. plant to formally unionize, or not.

Tennessee is one of 28 states with a Right to Work law, which mandates that a union cannot require employee membership-and with it the payment of dues and tacit approval of the union's political lobbying-as a condition of employment. Governor Bill Lee hasn't been as vocal a critic as former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who said she was kicking unions with her high heels. Lee told VW employees earlier this year that a "direct relationship" between a company and its employees is the best working environment. Previously, the UAW alleged that Tennessee, under former governor Bill Halsam, had predicated $300 million in state tax incentives on VW's blocking union representation. That allegation remains unproven.

But while pro-union advocates claim the region's conservative politicians are buying into corporate donations and squashing blue-collar worker rights, the UAW also stands accused of cozy relationships with politicians on the other side of the aisle who have done little to bolster the union's declining membership and failed to intervene in its multimillion-dollar scandal with Fiat Chrysler. Federal prosecutors in 2017 brought fraud and conspiracy charges against FCA labor relations chief Alphons Iacobelli and several UAW officials for siphoning millions of dollars-paid in large part by UAW member dues-into lavish vacations, cars, plane tickets, and jeweled $37,000 pens. Iacobelli is serving more than five years in prison while another FCA labor employee, Nancy Johnson, is serving a year.

Former UAW vice president Norwood Jewell pled guilty in April to accepting tens of thousands of dollars' worth of meals and golf expenses from FCA. He faces up to 18 months in prison. Former vice president General Holiefield was also targeted for funneling more than $260,000 to pay off his mortgage and another $200,000 to buy furniture and jewelry but escaped the charges since he died in 2015. His widow, Monica Morgan, is serving 18 months in prison. Virdell King, a UAW leader who helped negotiate FCA contracts in 2011 and 2015, served two months in prison.

The UAW has never gained a foothold into any wholly foreign-owned U.S. plant-not at Volkswagen, and not BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, or Volvo. National UAW membership, which stood at 1.5 million in 1979, now claims some 430,000, and that number is bolstered by the inclusion of non-auto workers such as casino employees.

The UAW itself blames NAFTA-which President Bill Clinton championed in the 1990s-for shifting hundreds of thousands of jobs to Mexico, which pays only a fraction of the $30-per-hour wage that more senior line workers receive before including benefits. That's in part true, but the UAW's most successful labor contracts-which guaranteed lifetime medical payments for retirees, among other unsustainable pension benefits-helped push General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy by 2009.

Compare the Big Three automakers, which continue to fire thousands of UAW workers at a time and then rehire them years later in a relentless boom-and-bust cycle, to Honda, which never in its 36-year manufacturing history in the U.S. has resorted to layoffs. Non-union employment seems to work, or else it wouldn't have. Pay and benefits at VW top out at an estimated $23.50 per hour. Taxes and cost of living in the Midwestern and Southern states are significantly lower than metropolitan areas where such factories, such as GM's plant outside Baltimore, cease to be profitable.

In the end, it's up to VW workers-and any auto worker employed by so many successful foreign manufacturers-to decide if the UAW is worth their own money.


('You Might Also Like',)