UAW wins partial victory in unionizing Chattanooga VW plant

The United Auto Workers are claiming a "historic" victory by successfully unionizing 164 skilled trades employees at the Volkswagen Chattanooga, Tenn. plant.  The total number of workers at the plant is 1,450.

The successful membership drive is the result of a change in tactics by the union, who lost an organizing vote of all hourly workers at the plant last year.  By getting a foot in the door with skilled trades employees, they believe it will be easier to unionize the entire plant.


While the unit of skilled trades workers who maintain the assembly machinery are a fraction of the hourly work force, observers said the victory was significant and could serve as a launching pad for the union’s efforts to organize other foreign-owned plants in the south.

“It gives the UAW a significant new tool in trying to organize the foreign automakers in the south. Symbolically, it’s going to be huge,” said Dennis Cuneo, a former automotive executive who has dealt with the UAW in past organizing campaigns.

Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer and head of the union's organizing efforts, downplayed the significance of the vote and its influence on the UAW's attempts to organize workers at southern plants including those owned by Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) and Daimler AG's (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz.

“To the overall grand plan of the UAW it’s probably not monumental, but to those workers, it’s a big deal,” Casteel said in an interview on Friday.

Casteel, and Chattanooga UAW Local 42 President Mike Cantrell, in a separate interview on Thursday, said the election was a result of the "frustration" of skilled trades workers not having collective bargaining rights for wages and benefits.

"Every case has to be built on the circumstances" at each plant, Casteel said. "We are not filing on Nissan or Mercedes tomorrow, but if our evaluation proved that there was a unit that was ready and strong enough to have an election, certainly we would explore it."

The union narrowly lost a February 2014 ballot in which all of the Chattanooga plant’s hourly workers were eligible to vote.

The vote was authorized last August, a month before it was revealed that Volkswagen was gaming the emissions tests for most of its fleet.  The troubled auto maker was going to build an new SUV at the Chattanooga plant, but those plans may be put on hold until the anticipated massive fines as a result of the scandal are negotiated. 

As for the UAW's future in the South, most workers at plants elsewhere realize the reason the facilities are in right-to-work states is because even foreign companies dread working with the UAW.  They saw what happened to the "Big Three" and have declined to receive the same treatment.

The Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga is a special case because the company actually supports the unionizing efforts.  That won't help in other localities, where commonsense labor relations are the rule and workers realize they don't need a union to earn high wages and good benefits.

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