VW's plant, which opened in May 2011, immediately was seen as a logical target for the UAW. Every other VW plant in the world has a union, and the UAW represented workers at the company's only other U.S. plant, near Pittsburgh, until it closed in 1988.
After King's election in June 2010, UAW members had protested at some Toyota dealerships and gone door to door in Montgomery, Ala., near the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing America plant. Both actions were later abandoned.
But after VW arrived, the UAW found its workers more receptive and management less resistant to the idea of a union.
"They're the ones that most walk the talk," King said of VW. "All the companies say that they respect workers' rights to bargain, but then they let their American management run wild and violate workers' rights. Volkswagen doesn't do that."
The UAW's fight took a big step forward after the top labor representative on VW's supervisory board, Bernd Osterloh, expressed support for a works council in Chattanooga. He said such a setup would give workers at the plant, which builds the Passat sedan, an important voice when sites are chosen to assemble future products such as a mid-sized SUV under consideration for Chattanooga or Mexico.
Under U.S. labor law, a works council would require the workers to be represented by a trade union, though what exactly that would have to consist of is in dispute. King hopes to use that prerequisite to his advantage and wants VW to recognize the UAW without a secret-ballot vote by workers.
He said card check, in which a majority of workers need to sign cards saying they agree to be represented by the union, is the "least disruptive process for determining representation" and that organizers already have collected enough cards.
"I think Chattanooga's going to be organized," King said. "The timing of it, I don't know yet. We're still talking through that process. It's not a done deal yet, but I feel really positive about it."
But the anti-UAW petitioners say they have gathered signatures from workers who signed cards but now want to revoke them because they either changed their mind or did not realize the card was equivalent to a vote.
Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is assisting the workers who filed complaints against the UAW, argues that the union would lose if workers voted.
"A card is not the same as someone willing to go pull a lever behind a curtain where they don't have to worry about a union organizer watching them," Semmens said. "Card check is not a reliable gauge of employee interest. It's a reflection of how much pressure is being applied by union organizers to get those cards."
Jonathan Walden, a pro-UAW employee in the plant's paint department, insisted that the cards he and his co-workers signed were clear in their intent, and that "a very strong majority" favor unionization. Walden said plant managers stressed during recent team meetings in the plant that signing a card meant supporting UAW representation, but unlike the union's accusations against Nissan, VW has not urged workers to say no.
A source familiar with the situation who requested anonymity told Automotive News last week that, given the difficulty of reconciling signed cards submitted by the union with the large number of signatures on the petitions, it is unlikely VW would recognize the UAW through card check. The source was not authorized to speak about the matter.
Volkswagen Group of America has not commented publicly since a Sept. 4 remark by CEO Jonathan Browning: "We are looking for an innovative solution in Chattanooga that allows our employees to have a strong voice, both locally and in our global formal works council structure. ... Ultimately, the decision of formal, third-party representation is up to our employees, through a formal vote."