Workers at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant will vote on union representation

DETROIT – Workers at Volkswagen’s only U.S. factory will decide next week whether to be represented by the United Auto Workers union.

German automaker Volkswagen AG said Monday that it has asked the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a vote at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant Feb. 12 through 14. The plant, which makes the Passat sedan, has around 3,000 workers.

“Employees have the right to decide, by voting in a secret ballot election, on a matter that concerns their own interests,” said Sebastian Patta, the plant’s vice-president of human resources, in a company statement. “Volkswagen respects this democratic right at all locations worldwide.”

German law gives labour representatives half the seats on the Volkswagen’s supervisory board, where some members have raised concerns about the Chattanooga plant being alone among the company’s large factories without formal labour representation.

The vote is a partial victory for the UAW, which said in September that a majority of workers at the plant had signed cards supporting union representation. The union has had little success so far in organizing foreign-owned U.S. plants, particularly in the South. Currently, the UAW represents just one foreign-owned U.S. factory, a Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill., with around 1,000 workers.

But while the UAW had hoped to represent the workers based on the signatures it collected, opponents — including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans — had called for a secret ballot.

Workers at the Chattanooga plant will vote on whether to let the UAW establish a German-style works council which will represent employees on issues such as working conditions and plant efficiency. The UAW would negotiate wages and benefits. Under Tennessee’s right-to-work law, workers would not have to join the union to be represented.

UAW President Bob King said if it’s established, the works council model would be the first of its kind in the U.S. and would set a new standard for labour and management co-operation.

“The historic success of the works council model is in line with the UAW’s successful partnerships with the domestic automakers and its vision of the 21st century union,” King said.

King has said in the past that the organization of foreign-owned plants is critical to the future of the UAW, which has been shrinking for decades as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group close plants and hire fewer workers. But it has seen little success, partly because foreign transplants have matched UAW wages. The UAW lost a 2001 vote to organize Nissan Motor Co. workers in Smyrna, Tenn.

Entry-level workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga earn $15 an hour, which is similar to the starting income of UAW workers at GM.

But Haslam, Corker and others have argued that allowing the UAW to gain a foothold in the South would discourage future foreign investment. Mercedes, BMW and Hyundai are among the other major automakers who have set up plants in Southern right-to-work states.