A United Auto Workers drive to organize workers at the Volkswagen Passat plant in Tennessee is turning into a critical battle in labor's drive to breach the wall of foreign automakers who have flocked to the American South and other right-to-work states in recent years to open nonunion plants.
But in a twist of typical labor-management game plan, the UAW fight is not with the German-owned Volkswagen, where some executives have indicated they are more willing to work with the union, but with the plant's workers, Tennessee state officials and anti-labor advocacy groups who fear the precedent a successful organizing drive could set.
The UAW, which claims it already has signed up a majority of the plant's workers for the union, is facing pushback from a group of Volkswagen employees who are skeptical of the labor movement and are not so fond of the idea of unionizing. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has taken up the fight on behalf of these employees, filing two separate complaints accusing the UAW and Volkswagen of colluding to unionize the plant in Chattanooga.
Both sides say the ultimate stakes are far bigger than one factory in Tennessee. Global automakers including Toyota, Honda and Kia in Asia and Germany's Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have flocked to the United States in recent years, setting up shop exclusively in states without strong union organizing laws. UAW President Bob King has said successful organization at these foreign "transplants" is critical to the union's long-term survival.
"If we complete Volkswagen and get an agreement there, that will help with all the other transplants," Mr. King told the magazine Automotive News this month. "Volkswagen would be a real breakthrough in American labor-management relations."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, a fellow Republican, are among the state's officials who have come out strongly against the UAW organizing drive.
Mr. Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga who helped lure the plant to the city, said he was so strongly opposed to the union in part because of the "lack of concern" he saw from labor leaders when General Motors and Chrysler needed a last-minute taxpayer bailout in 2008 and 2009 to avoid collapse.
"I've seen what a destructive force the UAW is within auto companies," Mr. Corker said. "I just cannot tell you how big of a negative impact the UAW would have on our community in terms of attracting future business. Companies have left Detroit because of the negative impact the UAW has had in the region."
In one sense, Mr. Corker agrees with Mr. King about what's at stake: If the Volkswagen plant is unionized, "then it's BMW, then it's Mercedes, then it's Nissan, hurting the entire Southeast if they get momentum," the senator told Automotive News.
The twist in the Tennessee script is that the UAW finally may have found a receptive partner in Volkswagen to help it establish its long-sought beachhead in the South.
Some executives at the German automaker have said they would like to form a European-style works council, which would give employers a direct and regular forum to discuss job-related issues with workers. But in the U.S., labor law analysts say, such a council would not be legally possible without organizing a union to negotiate employees' contracts. This has left the door open for the UAW.
"In Germany, Volkswagen is like, 'We deal with unions all the time. It's just the way you do business. It's no big deal,'" said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. "'What can be so bad about it in the United States?'"
UAW organizers claimed last month that they had collected enough signatures from workers at the plant for Volkswagen to recognize their union under the card-check process, but they have not produced the results.
Volkswagen could accept the claim and recognize the union without a vote, but the company has hinted that it would rather call for a secret-ballot election that would give employees a chance to express their opinions.
"Volkswagen is stuck between a rock and a hard place," Mr. Mix said, because the company doesn't want to anger the unions but does want to respect its employees' wishes.
In a sales call last month, Jonathan Browning, the president and CEO of the automaker's American division, said, "We have also said, repeatedly, that ultimately the decision of formal, third-party representation is up to our employees, through a formal vote. And I think the simplest statement is those realities haven't changed."
When rumors began to swirl that Volkswagen was willing to recognize the UAW, a group of employees fought back. They organized a counterpetition that has garnered more than 600 signatures from about one-third of the company's nearly 1,600 employees, saying they don't want to join a union.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation then filed a pair of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the employees. The first complaint accused the United Auto Workers of tricking employees into signing up for the union.
The second contended that Volkswagen coerced employees to join the UAW. The lawsuit says an executive at the company indicated that workers would get to produce a popular new model only if they accepted UAW representation, which would be a violation of labor law.
The United Auto Workers did not respond to requests for comment on the complaints or its organizing drive.
But anti-union activists and a growing number of Volkswagen's Tennessee employees fear that organizing the plant in Chattanooga would give the UAW the leverage and momentum it needs to launch similar organizing drives at transplant factories such as Nissan's plant in Canton, Miss., Mercedes-Benz's plant in Vance, Ala., and BMW's plant in Greer, S.C. Hyundai, Kia, Honda and Toyota also have automobile factories in the South that would be vulnerable to such moves.
"Obviously, we do not want the UAW to have a presence in our community," Mr. Corker said.
Many Tennesseans are afraid the UAW also will cost their state business if it sets up shop there. Mr. Haslam told NPR that he doesn't want the UAW to organize at Volkswagen because, "one of the reasons is, we've had several prospective companies say that decision will impact whether we choose Tennessee or somewhere else."
The ramifications extend beyond Tennessee.
"We're not just worried about the impact it would have here," Mr. Corker said, "but over time, the negative impact it would have on the South, in general."
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