UAW unworried about political blowback for forming joint effort with German union in South

SPRING HILL, Tenn. – A top official with the United Auto Workers said Thursday that he is unworried about provoking more hostility from Republicans by creating a joint office with Germany’s largest union in Tennessee.

The UAW and its German counterpart, IG Metall, formally announced the creation of a joint office to promote labour issues at German automakers and suppliers doing business in the South.

“There’s going to be some pushback from some really conservative elements in the South, I’m sure,” said Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer. “But that’s going to happen if we’re doing this or if we’re doing something else.”

Republicans including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have been highly critical of the UAW’s efforts to gain representation of workers at foreign automakers in the South. Corker has engaged in a public feud with the UAW ever since the debate over the government bailout of the auto industry during the Great Recession.

But Corker has so far declined to comment on the two unions’ decision to work together to try to boost wages and working conditions among the estimated 100,000 people working for German employers in the U.S. auto sector.

Wolfgang Lemb, a member of IG Metall’s executive committee, said the union can exert its influence among companies to apply the same approach to organized labour in Germany and the United States. And an imbalance in pay standards can hurt German workers at home, he said.

“It is becoming increasingly clear to our colleagues in Germany that if we continue to have a pronounced low-wage sector here, it will increase pressure on employees in German companies,” Lemb said in German.

The two unions’ Transatlantic Labor Institute will be housed within UAW Local 1853’s union hall near the General Motors plant in the Nashville suburb of Spring Hill. The location will provide easy access to numerous suppliers around the region and to the assembly plants of Volkswagen in Tennessee, Mercedes in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.

The UAW on Wednesday prevailed over Volkswagen’s objections to its petition to hold a union vote for skilled workers at the German automaker’s plant in Chattanooga. The vote to represent 165 maintenance workers is scheduled to begin Dec. 3, and follows last year’s loss by UAW in a vote among all blue-collar workers at the plant.

The UAW’s Casteel said a win by the smaller group of workers at the plant would signal a first step to establishing a German-style works council at the plant that would represent both hourly and salaried employees. Volkswagen has argued the opposite, saying that the effort conflicts with its “one-team” approach.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a report Thursday questioning whether any sort of works council would be legal under American law.

“Under U.S. law, there is no such thing as unionization-lite,” wrote Glenn Spencer, vice-president of the chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative. “The UAW might advocate for something they call a ‘works council,’ but in reality it would be nothing more than a traditional union local.”