Volkswagen gets NLRB to delay UAW organizing drive at Chattanooga
In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. | Erik Schelzig / AP

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Even as Volkswagen keeps saying it’s officially neutral, its bosses convinced the National Labor Relations Board to throw a legal delay into the United Auto Workers’ new organizing drive at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant.

In response, the union has dropped the labor law-breaking – formally called unfair labor practices – charges it filed against VW in an ongoing dispute over whether the company must recognize UAW’s recognition win by Local 42 in the small unit of 160 unionized VW skilled trades workers there.

That withdrawal knocks the props out from under the company’s maneuver, opening the way for a vote among all 1,700 Chattanooga workers, the union told the NLRB on May 9. The board, now dominated by Trump-named members, however, has yet to agree.

On May 3, by a 2-1 party-line vote, the NLRB sided with VW had delayed the vote.

The legal maneuvering marks UAW’s second attempt to organize all the Chattanooga workers in one of only two VW non-union plants worldwide. The other is in China.

UAW’s campaign to unionize Chattanooga, and a similar effort at Nissan’s plant in Mississippi, is part of the union’s drive to break through into foreign “transplant” auto factories in the traditionally and culturally union-hostile South.

In turn, the UAW drive is also part of organized labor’s wider focus on organizing the unorganized in the growing but anti-union region. Tennessee was 5.1% unionized and Tennessee was 5.5% unionized last year, federal calculations show.

Both U.S. and foreign automakers have been erecting plants in states of the old Confederacy in barely concealed gambits to avoid unions. And when UAW and other unions try to organize such plants, bosses play off white workers against their African-American colleagues in a time-tested “divide and conquer” campaign.

UAW’s first drive to unionize the whole Chattanooga plant ended in a narrow election loss on Valentine’s Day, 2014, after a multi-million-dollar campaign by right-wing outside lobbies, designed to threaten the workers. News reports indicate the right-wingers are cranking up a rerun.

That anti-union drive was aided and abetted by GOP politicians, including former Gov. Phil Bredesen and then-Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor. Bredesen and the GOP state legislative majority threatened that if the Chattanooga workers went union, the state would yank planned subsidies and tax breaks for expanding the plant.  The threats worked.

“Let Chattanooga workers vote,” UAW declared in a statement after the NLRB-imposed delay in the election, which was originally scheduled for the end of April. “After insisting for the last four years that they would only agree to a vote of all production and maintenance workers, Volkswagen has now blocked just such a vote. VW’s manipulation of the NLRB process to halt a vote of its workers is a travesty.”

“Free, democratic elections are a cornerstone of American life, whether it’s the PTA or president of the United States. After all these years, why in the world is it OK to deny Chattanooga workers their vote of yes or no?” UAW called VW’s demand for a delay “the definition of duplicity.”

“Chattanooga workers have a simple message to the politicians and political appointees in Washington D.C. and the Volkswagen corporate brass – Let us vote!”

The union also took its campaign overseas again, to VW’s headquarters in Germany. German law requires worker representation on company boards, including VW’s. It uses tough penalties to enforce its labor law and against anti-union firms.

This time, UAW decided to use moral weight too, as union President Gary Jones and other top leaders met with German Catholic Cardinal Reinhard Marx and his staff about the contrast in company conduct towards workers and unions between Germany and the U.S.

Once again, the union said, it was the workers, upset by erratic scheduling and variable work rules, who began the latest organizing drive.

“This was a decision made by the Chattanooga workers,” UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, whose staff is unionized with the News Guild. “The members have taken it into their own hands.” Added Local 42 President Steve Cochran: “It’s going to be respect and consistency. That’s the two big things we want. It’s not about money. It’s not about greed.’’

The local, by the way, is heavily African-American, as is the Chattanooga plant’s workforce, so its number, 42, honors the late Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier. 42 was Robinson’s uniform number with the Brooklyn Dodgers.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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