By on May 1, 2019

Volkswagen’s singular U.S. plant has toyed with the idea of unionizing for the past five years. Chattanooga Operations, in Tennessee, initially seemed fine with the establishment of a German-style works council. However, while the United Auto Workers’ first attempt to seal the deal with votes failed in 2014, the union has since managed to rally more staff under its banner.

The UAW is now calling for another vote (its fifth), claiming a majority of the facility’s hourly workers are on its side. Meanwhile, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee spent the first part of this week pleading with plant staff not to unionize.

Lee’s not the first Tennessee governor to stand in opposition to the UAW. His predecessor, former Gov. Bill Haslam, also opposed unionizing and threatened to nix millions in state and local incentives if the facility hopped into bed with organized labor. However, while Lee’s aims are the same, his strategy is not. Rather than threaten employees, he’s asking them to see things his way.

With the factory briefly idled on Monday to allow the governor to receive its staff’s undivided attention, Lee chose his wording carefully. The governor devoted the majority of his chat (shared in its entirety by Labor Notes) to asking staff to consider the state’s future and ensure more manufacturing jobs and skilled-labor positions are available for their neighbors and children.

“There are new companies that all of us would benefit from if they came here, because they would bring more high-paying jobs that would elevate the economic activity of our state for everyone. There are a few things that are really important for those companies that are thinking about coming here,” he said. “What are you doing for workforce development in your state that makes it an attractive place for us to bring our company? I will tell you, we are going to do something in this state to make sure that we have skilled tradespeople … to fill the next 3,800 jobs that Volkswagen may ultimately bring to this place if we continue to create the environment in Tennessee that is helpful to them or to any number of other companies that we’re already talking to.”

Volkswagen has already informed Chattanooga that it believes the facility can achieve more through an open dialog than unionization, but would respect the outcome of the vote. Lee’s speech said much the same.

“I know you all have an important vote that is coming up; that there is differences of opinion about that,” he said, noting that he didn’t run any attack ads during his campaign for governor and also refused to be divisive or confrontational about the union issue.

“I do believe, based on my personal experience of working with hundreds of skilled trades people over 35 years of working, that every workplace has challenges,” Lee continued. “There are things in your workplace that you wish were different. I also believe … that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best.”

Lee’s address received quite a bit of applause in certain moments, but booing can be heard in parts of the recording. Hearing evidence of a split crowd, the governor said he respected their position and was compelled to share his in order to promote an “open dialog.”

“We had open dialogue back by letting the governor know that we think he is full of it,” Billy Quigg, a seven-year veteran at the plant, told Labor Notes. “Don’t preach open dialogue and then get upset when we make it clear that we disagree with what the governor is saying.”

The UAW originally hoped to see a vote take place at the end of April, but there’s no official date set. Automotive News reports no change in the vote’s status, but shared a written statement from Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the UAW in Detroit, about the speech.

“Governor Lee has embraced UAW GM workers in Spring Hill Tennessee. All Chattanooga workers want is the same rights as Spring Hill workers and every other VW worker in the world. Why should Chattanooga workers be treated differently and why wouldn’t the Governor or anyone else want Chattanooga workers to have the same rights as GM Spring Hill workers?” Rothenberg postulated.

[Image: Volkswagen]

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22 Comments on “Tennessee Governor to Volkswagen Employees: Please, Do Not Unionize...”

  • avatar

    Unions are organized crime.

  • avatar

    The choice is theirs. Employees have lost a lot of their bargaining power and wages reflect this a bit while corporate profits rise. Equity in the company is another alternative as they do for the CEOs.

  • avatar

    VW is scrambling to keep making cars here in the U.S. Now that diesel is dead, and that plant made the Passat diesels, what is left to produce can be made in Mexico where VW makes the Jetta.

    If this plant goes union, it will eventually end up like the Saturn operations of GM…moved out to another plant, then model closeout.

    • 0 avatar

      VW F*ed up over and over again. From not paying well, to building crap cars, to Diesel-Gate etc. Sucky news for everyone but the CEOs and share holders.

    • 0 avatar

      that wasn’t caused by the union as that plant is now hiring people and is still UAW, Saturn closed because of poor product planning and the great recession, people at the time could retire, like myself or relocate to other GM plants, also the plant did not entirely shut down, they still produced parts for other plants in 2007 it retooled to build the Chevy Traverse.

    • 0 avatar
      Peter Gazis

      The branch of GM formerly known as Saturn, is running on 3 shifts. Building engines, Cadillac XT5s, Cadillac CT6es & GMC Acadias. In Spring Hill Tennessee U.S.A.

      VW builds the Atlas in Chattanooga Tennessee U.S.A. Occasionally a Passat rolls off the line as well, but that’s becoming a very rare occurrence since no one is buying Passats.

    • 0 avatar

      saturn was never “moved to another plant”. as GM watered down the concept, they made badge engineered clones of other GM vehicles. they killed saturn the same time they killed saab, hummer and pontiac. spring hill is still UAW and still makes GM vehicles.

      NUMMI was also a gm/toyota joint venture with the UAW that was a success until it got closed down.

      if VW wanted happier workers, theyd follow the same pay and seniority rules as the german plants.

  • avatar

    Is there any way for them to bypass the UAW and join IG Metall? Better to go for co-determination than constantly be adversaries.

    • 0 avatar

      VW tried to do this, but their efforts resulted in threats from the Gov’t of Tennessee to rescind various tax advantages if they went ahead. (So much for government not meddling in business, I guess).

      I wonder if anyone in Tennessee government realizes what a short-sighted move that was?

  • avatar

    My son quit Lee Company as a plumber because he was being over worked, with little time for his personal life, I have nothing against Mr. Lee, he does provide a lot of jobs and has a great training program, I on the other hand retired from the GM Spring Hill plant, with a pension and medical coverage thanks to the UAW.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Very mixed feelings regarding this. In 1983 VW opened a 450,000 sq ft manufacturing/assembly facility in Barrie, Ontario (about 1 hour north of Toronto) at 49 Truman Road, employing just over 500 production/distribution staff.

    As part of the Canada-USA Auto Pact opening this plant in Canada would allow VW to import finished vehicles (the plan was for it to be Audis) into Canada duty free and then ship them into the USA, also duty free.

    This loophole was phased out under NAFTA. The plant was originally intended to make parts for the VW manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania but poor sales of VW products in the USA scuttled that, so instead it made aluminium (alloy) wheels for VW worldwide.

    There was a large 2 storey wall separating the production area from the office area. Production workers referred to it as the ‘Berlin Wall’. Workers were represented by the Canadian Auto Workers.

    In 1996 VW sold the plant and it became Alloy Wheels International, manufacturing wheels for VW, GM and Honda (which opened their manufacturing facility in nearby Alliston).

    In 2001 Alloy Wheels went bankrupt, paying out about 5 cents on the dollar to creditors. It was reported that the pension was drastically underfunded. The facility still stands, grossly underused, primarily relegated to being a self-storage facility.

    VW management does not engender confidence. And Puebla can probably take much of the existing Tennessee production.

    The speeches made by the Governors of Tennessee would probably be illegal in Ontario, under the rules set out in the Labour Relations Act.

  • avatar

    @Arthur D… Interesting, that’s the first time I’ve heard that whole VW Barrie story.

    @redgolf..Agreed …The GM pension deposit hit my bank account this morning … Thank You UAW/CAW .

  • avatar

    Do autoworkers in the US South enjoy being paid less and having crappier benefits than their counterparts in the developed world? Or is the only alternative in Dixie working at WalMart?

  • avatar

    The governor should buzz off. This is between the company and the employees.

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