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UAW seeks foothold in South with VW inroad

Labor unions, after years of dismal results across the South, could be headed for a breakthrough at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The United Auto Workers is lobbying the factory’s 3,100 full-time workers for the right to represent them with VW management. While the union is still trying to gain enough support to merit a vote, VW management recently said that it might support some level of union activity at the plant. If so, one of the biggest obstacles to a successful union drive – management opposition – could vanish.

A UAW foothold among foreign carmakers that have flocked to the South worries some economic-development officials.

Tennessee’s governor said a unionized factory might “deter investment,” and Chattanooga’s Chamber of Commerce president has said he doesn’t want any union at VW.

Other lightly unionized Deep South states, including Georgia, tout their state’s right-to-work rules when courting companies.

“This is a game-changer. It is a very big deal that potentially begins to redefine labor-management relations,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor issues. Shaiken and other experts expect that UAW efforts at other Southern plants would likely heat up after a win in Chattanooga.

Chris Cummiskey, the commissioner of economic development for Georgia, said he’s not worried that union activity will spill over the border.

“Companies in Georgia that manufacture feel very comfortable that they won’t see any [upsurge] in union activity,” he said. “It might even help Georgia if it pops up in other states.”

Foreign automakers arrived in the Southeast when BMW opened a plant in Greenville, S.C., in 1994. The Germans, including Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, were joined by the Japanese (Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi; Toyota in Kentucky) and the Koreans (Hyundai in Alabama; Kia in Georgia). Automakers hired thousands of workers and their parts suppliers employ thousands more.

All the region’s foreign auto plants are non-union, although GM and Ford plants in Tennessee and Kentucky have unions.

Less costly land, labor and energy, along with cash incentives and tax breaks, lured automakers south. Every Southern state, from Virginia to Texas, enforces right-to-work laws, which allow workers the option of not paying dues to unions that bargain on their behalf.

Union membership has declined nationally, from 17.7 million in 1983 to 14.4 million in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The UAW has tried for years to organize at Nissan’s Tennessee and Mississippi factories. It twice failed to win in Tennessee.

The Chattanooga VW plant, which makes Passat sedans, has been a target since its 2011 opening. Union representatives are soliciting support from workers to authorize a vote on who would represent them. They need 30 percent of the workers to call for a vote for an election to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board.

UAW President Robert T. King says his union has no future unless it organizes workers in Southern auto plants.

The union’s efforts received a boost last month when the head of Germany’s largest autoworkers union mailed letters to VW’s Chattanooga employees encouraging them to join the UAW.

A few weeks after the German union urged Chattanooga workers to join the UAW, a VW board member, Horst Neumann, said the company was in talks with the UAW about the creation of a German-style “works council” at the factory.

“The UAW would be the natural partner,” he said. “We are not obliged to do it. It will depend on the negotiations.”

The works council could involve union members, but first the UAW must earn the right to an election and then win a majority of the workers’ support.

Under such a setup – similar to how VW operates in Europe – the UAW would maintain its typical organizing activities: bargaining with VW management over wages, pensions and other issues.

In the VW model, works councils made up of both union and non-union workers deal with health and safety issues, training, technology and ways to most efficiently manufacture automobiles.

“Volkswagen is among the most innovative and competitive of global automakers,” Shaiken said. “This is a company that knows how to play the game.”