July 10, 2014 at 7:46 pm

UAW forming local to represent VW workers in Tennessee

Washington— The United Auto Workers union announced Thursday it is establishing a local chapter in Chattanooga, Tenn., to represent Volkswagen AG workers — even though workers narrowly voted against creating a German-style works council in February.

TheUAW hopes that if it can convince a significant number of workers to join the local the German automaker will recognize it as Local 42. The union could face an expensive and difficult fight seeking representation. It could be embarrassing if it lost in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local,” said Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, who previously served as director of UAW Region 8 covering the South.

UAW officials said at a news conference they will not seek a new membership vote by all workers, saying they didn't want to go through the election that would include outside influences trying to prod workers not to join. The UAW narrowly lost a vote of all workers in February after outside forces poured in extensive resources to defeat the UAW and state Republicans strongly opposed it.

"There's no sense in going through that process again," Casteel said

About 20 members are joining to start, the UAW said, but won’t pay dues unless a collective bargaining agreement is reached. The local will be housed at a IBEW union hall near the VW plant.

Volkswagen is open to German-style works council that represents both salaried and blue-collar workers. However, companies in the U.S. can’t establish a worker council unless the workers are members of a union.

Unlike a traditional union, the UAW would only represent members — though it’s not clear what would happen if it was recognized as the official bargaining agent at the plant.

The UAW said “Local 42 offers workers the opportunity for a voice in the workplace through the German automaker’s ‘works council’ approach to employee engagement. Volkswagen’s business model is premised on employee representation, and Local 42 will represent any interested employees who join the local as members. No employees will be required to join.”

The announcement comes as VW is getting closer to making a decision on where to locate productionof a new mid-size SUV. The automaker has said it is considering both Chattanooga — which currently builds the Passat — and a plant in Mexico.

“Just like anywhere else in the world, the establishment of a local organization is a matter for the trade union concerned. There is no contract or other formal agreement with UAW on this matter,” said VW spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan. Casteel said the UAW had “arrived at a consensus with the company.”

In a Detroit News interview Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called the UAW move “taking some steps to try to save face. There is no agreement between the company and the UAW.”

Corker said VW and Tennessee officials have had some “very productive meetings” on getting the German automaker to locate the new SUV at the Chattanooga plant. “Ultimately, I believe we’re going to have a very good outcome,” Corker said.

In April, the union decided to drop its appeal of the union election with the National Labor Relations Board after it had sought the testimony of Corker, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bill Haslam and other state Republicans.

The UAW has sought to emphasize that it dropped its appeals of its election loss in February to try to ensure that the plant get the new SUV.

UAW President Dennis Williams said the union won’t give up. “Earlier this year, the UAW was gratified to earn the confidence and support of many Volkswagen team members,” said Williams . “At that time, we said we would not give up on these committed and hard-working employees. We’re keeping our promise.”

The UAW said Local 42 members declared workforce development to be a top priority, saying in a statement they would seek new job-training opportunities so that employees can continually expand their skills as new technologies emerge and manufacturing processes change.

“Having access to the UAW’s expertise and support will keep the plant competitive and will keep our workforce on the cutting edge of productivity and quality,” said Jonathan Walden, who works in the Volkswagen plant’s paint department. “The members of Local 42 are ready to roll up our sleeves and focus on the future.”

VW has 105 union facilities with more than 600,000 around the world. The only major non-union facility is in Tennessee.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com