The United Auto Workers union will announce today that it's forming a local union in Chattanooga to represent employees at the Volkswagen plant.
Participation will be voluntary, and there will be no formal recognition of the union by the German automaker until a majority of its workers have joined, UAW officials have confirmed.
"We will be announcing a local, and we would fully expect that Volkswagen would deal with this local union if it represents a substantial portion of its employees," UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel of Ashland City said this morning.
"It's dependent on the employees and what they want to do."
If successful, the effort would mark the union's first attempt to gain recognition at a foreign-owned automaker in the South, which is becoming a hotbed of auto manufacturing. As more manufacturing moves into the region, getting into more Southern plants is vital to the UAW's long-term survival.
The union has been in talks with Volkswagen about the process since the UAW lost a representation election in mid-February by a 712-626 vote. The union initially filed a challenge to the election with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming outside influence by Republican politicians in Tennessee, including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Chattanooga Republican and former mayor, and Gov. Bill Haslam, tainted the vote.
But the UAW dropped its challenge in April on the morning a hearing was scheduled by the NLRB, and has been negotiating with Volkswagen officials in Germany to try to work out a way to gain representation at the plant without winning a formal election.
The decision to go ahead and form a local union was made this week, although the union has been considering the move since just after the February vote, UAW officials said.
"The election was so close, we don't feel it's right to turn our backs on these workers," Casteel said.
This move comes as Volkswagen continues negotiations with the state of Tennessee over a proposed incentives package reported to be about $300 million that the automaker is seeking in return for expanding the Chattanooga plant by adding a second vehicle to be produced there, a new crossover utility vehicle. The facility now makes only the Passat midsize sedan, whose sales have been lagging this year.
Chattanooga reportedly is the leader in competition for the new vehicle over an existing VW plant in Puebla, Mexico. Union officials expect Volkswagen to keep silent on the UAW representation issue until after the incentives package is secured and Chattanooga is announced as the production site for the new crossover. Some reports from Germany indicate that a decision could be announced within a few days.
But the Haslam administration says it wants to hear from the company on this latest development.
"It is most appropriate for the company to speak for itself on this issue," said David Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Haslam. "Our understanding is that there is no agreement between the company and the UAW."
The union got involved in discussions with Volkswagen's German management more than a year ago to try to work out a plan to create an employee "works council" at the Chattanooga plant like the councils VW has in almost all of its other plants worldwide. Works councils meet with managers to solve work issues other than pay and benefits at the other plants.
Whether the UAW will be able to set up a works council and get formal recognition by Volkswagen in Chattanooga will depend on whether it can get a majority of the workers to join the union, Casteel indicated.
Today's UAW announcement will be made at 3 p.m. Central time in Chattanooga, Casteel said.