New Battle Lines: VW Isn't The Enemy In UAW Signup Drive

January 29, 2014, 8:52 AM

A familiar labor showdown is unfolding in Chattanooga, Tenn., with an unfamiliar twist.

The nationally watched setting is a three-year-old Volkswagen assembly plant, where the UAW hopes "to gain its first foothold at a foreign-owned automobile plant in the South," as Steven Greenhouse writes in The New York Times. And here's the twist:

In a region known as anti-union, many view VW’s response as unusual, if not topsy-turvy.

Unlike most companies that confront unionization efforts, Volkswagen . . . has not mounted a vigorous campaign to beat back the union; instead VW officials have hinted they might even prefer having a union. And while unions that seek to organize factories often complain that the playing field is tilted because they do not have access to workers in the plant, here the union opponents are the ones protesting what they say is an uneven field. . . .

A business-backed group put up a billboard declaring, “Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga.”

In a stark turnabout, the National Labor Relations Board even received a complaint that VW was improperly pressuring employees to unionize. Not true, the regulatory board found, The Times says. 

Several Volkswagen officials from Germany visited the plant and hinted that it would be good to have a labor union because that would help establish a German-style works council. Such councils, comprising managers and representatives of white-collar and blue-collar workers, seek to foster collaboration within a factory as they forge policies on plant rules, work hours, vacations and other matters.

Union opponents see larger stakes -- "warning that if the UAW succeeds here, that will lend momentum to unionize two other prestigious German-owned plants: the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and the BMW plant in South Carolina," as Greenhouse puts it.

"The business community and labor are seeing what’s happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history," said Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University.

For the company's part, a VW spokesman tells the reporter:

“Volkswagen values the rights of its employees in all locations to representation of their interests. . . .  For this reason, we have begun a dialogue with the UAW.”

-- Alan Stamm

Read more:  The New York Times

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