UAW vote at VW plant has high stakes for industry, labor
The ballot Volkswagen workers will see this week poses a simple yes-or-no question:
"Do you wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by the UAW?"
The answer rendered by the 1,500 workers eligible to vote could have profound implications for the future of the U.S. auto industry and organized labor.
No one is more aware of this than the UAW, which hopes a victory in Chattanooga will finally give it a foothold for expansion in the South's foreign-owned auto plants after three decades of struggles to organize their workers.
A loss, however, would be devastating, given that VW has all but invited the UAW into the Chattanooga plant to help create a German-style labor council that would give workers a say in corporate decisions about new products and manufacturing sites.
"If they don't get this one, then there's no hope for them anytime soon to have any success with BMW or Daimler," says Steve Silvia, a professor at American University who recently wrote a book on German labor relations. "And the Japanese and Korean plants are reaches even beyond the German plants."
The political stakes are high, too. Well-funded political groups have descended on Chattanooga over the past week with election-year vigor, airing ads on drive-time radio and posting billboards that blame the UAW for Detroit's blight. GOP politicians in Tennessee are warning that unionization will hurt the state's economy.
A weak union presence has played a major role in pulling the U.S. auto industry's center of gravity toward Southern states such as Tennessee, which had 48,500 automotive jobs in 2012, according to a Brookings Institution report.
"It goes without saying that other Southern auto manufacturers are watching," says Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney who worked with VW several years ago and now advises an anti-UAW group. "This vote will have huge ramifications."
Tennessee has been here before. Starting in the late 1980s, union halls and human resources managers had their eyes on the town of Spring Hill, where General Motors opened the first plant for Saturn with an innovative labor deal similar to those employed in Germany.
Spring Hill workers sat on committees that made Saturn's key decisions, says Mike Bennett, who led the UAW's Spring Hill local from its founding in 1986 until 1999. Their pay was based on Saturn sales.
But after new union leaders took over in 1999, Bennett says, labor relations at Spring Hill reverted to a more confrontational style. A decade later, the plant was on the chopping block amid GM's bankruptcy but was spared after UAW lobbying. Bennett, now retired, says the situation would never have gotten so dire if the original labor plan had been kept.
"Had they done a better job of implementing the lessons that we learned here in Spring Hill in the '90s, we wouldn't have faced the bankruptcy 10 years later," says Bennett, who still lives in town.
UAW President Bob King disputes this retelling. He says many collaborative practices pioneered at Saturn were widely adopted by the UAW.
But to Bennett, the real test of what the union learned will come in Chattanooga. "Bob King has been saying for years that the UAW is a different union now," he said. "Volkswagen is going to be an opportunity to prove it."
Not everyone in Tennessee is inclined to wait and see. Among the skeptics is Gov. Bill Haslam, who says a unionized VW plant would make it harder to expand the auto industry's presence in Tennessee. "When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time," Haslam told the Nashville Tennessean editorial board last week.
A small Washington-based group called the Center for Worker Freedom, affiliated with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, has rented 13 billboards in Chattanooga. Among the messages: "The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicians including Barack Obama."
In an effort to tamp down outside influences, VW has halted factory tours and closed its property to anyone not there on official business.
VW, which opened the $1 billion Chattanooga plant in 2011 as an anchor of its U.S. growth strategy, started talks with the UAW as a way to bring American workers into a global "works council" without violating U.S. laws against company-run unions.
While some foreign-owned automakers bar union organizers from their plants, VW has let in UAW leaders like Gary Casteel, director of the union's Tennessee-based Region 8, who addressed hundreds of workers at the plant last Tuesday.
"Volkswagen Group of America and the UAW have agreed to this common path for the election," Frank Fischer, CEO of the Chattanooga plant, said in a statement last week. "Volkswagen is committed to neutrality."
King, who has staked his legacy on a victory in the South, sounded confident in an interview last week. The vote, he said, "will demonstrate that when workers have a free and open democratic choice, they're going to choose representation."
Inside the plant, tensions have simmered between pro- and anti-union workers.
Paint shop employee Mike Burton is in the latter camp. He led a group that collected 600 workers' signatures on an anti-UAW petition submitted to management last year.
"Once we fall to this influence, then the others who have protected themselves and defended themselves against this for as much as 20 years" will be targeted next, said Burton, 56. "I don't want to be the one to let that break in the dike occur."
Eric DeLacy, who works two floors down from Burton fixing imperfections in paint jobs, says his experience after the Passat's 2011 launch made him a UAW supporter.
Early on, with Passat demand surging, managers added a shift and assigned overtime. DeLacy, 33, would sleep all day Sunday just to recover from a Saturday shift before returning to work Monday.
"Sixty hours a week is something you can do in short periods," DeLacy said. "But once it goes on too long, it kind of just wears you down."
DeLacy went to a UAW meeting around that time and became convinced workers needed a voice. He says a seat on the works council could help Chattanooga win more products, such as the new SUVs now in development.
"Closed mouths don't get fed," DeLacy said. "Without having a seat, you'd have to be just hoping that they'll decide to occasionally give you a new car."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at email@example.com.