By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is downplaying the significance of a new policy that the United Auto Workers has characterized as an avenue toward union recognition the Chattanooga Volkswagen factory.
Haslam, one of the more vocal Republicans critical of the UAW’s efforts to represent workers at the plant, told reporters Tuesday that his administration has been in talks with Volkswagen about the new policy, but declined to give details pending an official announcement.
“I don’t think there’s really any new news in this beyond what they said before, but we need to let them speak for themselves on this,” Haslam said.
Volkswagen has so far declined to comment.
UAW leaders in Chattanooga predicted in a Monday letter to members that the new policy could lead the company to recognize the union as a bargaining partner without another divisive plant-wide union vote. It would be the first foreign auto plant in the South with UAW representation.
Members of a group of workers who opposed the UAW in the February election have formed their own organization called the American Council of Employees to represent both salaried and blue collar workers at the plant.
Both the UAW and the group expect the Volkswagen policy to outline the company’s plans to interact with community and labor groups at the plant.
Volkswagen wants to create a German-style works council at the Chattanooga plant to represent both salaried and blue-collar workers. But the company’s interpretation of U.S. law indicates that it must work with an independent union to operate a works council.
The UAW expects the policy change to lead to the union being recognized by the company to bargain on behalf of its members at plant, the UAW said in a letter to members of Local 42 in Chattanooga on Monday.
Volkswagen and the union reached an agreement last spring, according to the letter obtained by The Associated Press. The UAW said it would cooperate with efforts to win production of a new SUV in Chattanooga, and that it would drop its National Labor Relations Board challenge of the February union vote.
In return, Volkswagen committed to recognizing the UAW, according to the letter signed by Mike Cantrell and Steve Cochran, the president and vice president of Local 42. The UAW says more than half of eligible workers have signed up to join the local.
Sean Moss, the interim president of the independent worker group, says the UAW is exaggerating its strength and that more white and blue collar workers are gravitating toward the American Council of Employees.
“What we’re offering is to have the local employees in the local plant dictate their own path moving forward,” Moss said. “There’s no interest coming from Detroit, there’s no interest coming from Washington.
“Everything is going to be centered on the plant,” he said.
The UAW in February lost the contentious union election at the Volkswagen plant by a 712-626 vote amid warnings from Republican politicians — including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Haslam — that $300 million in incentives for expansion could be imperiled if the union won.
Corker drew the ire of the UAW for repeatedly suggesting before the February union vote that he had inside information that the rejection of the union would result in the company deciding to expand the plant within two weeks.
It was later revealed that the state’s $300 million incentive package offered to Volkswagen had contained the caveat that the money was subject to labor talks “being concluded to the satisfaction” of the state. Haslam declined to specify which scenarios would have satisfied the state.
Volkswagen ultimately announced in July that it will invest $600 million to expand the factory to build a new seven-seater SUV as it seeks to reverse flagging U.S. sales.
The UAW’s case at the Tennessee plant has been bolstered by support from labor representatives who control half the seats on the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker’s supervisory board.
The UAW, its German counterpart IG Metall and the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council in September signed an agreement outlining their joint efforts to gain labor representation at the Chattanooga plant, including the goal of the UAW gaining “exclusive majority status and recognition of this by Volkswagen.”
The strong links between the UAW and the powerful labor interests at Volkswagen could make it difficult for rival employee groups they call management-friendly “yellow unions” to gain favor with the company.
Organizing foreign-owned auto plants has been seen as key for the UAW to revive its fortunes. Union membership stood at about 391,000 at the start of this year — a far cry from its 1979 peak of 1.5 million.