In February 2014, the United Auto Workers (UAW) lost an election at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant by a 712-626 vote. The UAW then filed postelection objections claiming that several Tennessee politicians and other third parties made pre-election threats that deprived Volkswagen employees of a free election. But on the eve of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing to address those objections, the UAW withdrew them. This puts an end to the NLRB case at the Chattanooga plant and will result in the NLRB certifying the UAW's defeat.
Four years ago, UAW President Bob King vowed that the UAW would organize a foreign-owned auto manufacturer's plant in the South, saying that if the UAW was unable to do so, its future would be in jeopardy. The UAW's campaign at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant was its best opportunity for such a victory. Volkswagen publicly supported organized labor and, as the Wall Street Journal described, "assumed what it considered a legally unbiased stance, one expressed in a [15-]page ‘neutrality contract' with the union. But it was a stance with a decidedly pro-union tilt. It gave union organizers unusual in-plant access to the workers and placed considerable constraints on anti-union campaigners, generating clear signals to its workforce." After an extended organizing campaign in which the UAW claimed that it secured bargaining authorizations from a majority of Chattanooga employees, Volkswagen agreed that the NLRB would hold an expedited representation election. Yet despite these substantial advantages, the UAW lost the election.
The UAW then filed postelection objections claiming that employees' right to free choice was tainted by a "coordinated and widely-publicized campaign" run by various state officials, U.S. Senator Bob Corker and a private group, Southern Momentum. In its objections, the UAW alleged that these third parties made comments about Volkswagen losing state support and employees losing jobs if the UAW prevailed, which created a coercive environment and warranted a rerun election. King declared: "We are outraged the people in the political arena decided they were going to threaten workers and that they were going to threaten the company."
The NLRB scheduled a hearing on these objections before an administrative law judge, but just hours before the hearing was scheduled to begin on April 21, 2014, the UAW withdrew its objections, cancelling the hearing. King said the UAW withdrew its objections because it "is ready to put February's tainted election in the rearview mirror and instead focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga." In a nod to the NLRB's recent efforts to revise its election rules, King stated that "the NLRB's historically dysfunctional and complex process potentially could drag on for months or even years." The UAW has also said it will look to Congress to address its claims that the lawmakers and other third parties engaged in unlawful coercion leading up to this election.
As a result, for now the UAW's organizing at Volkswagen is at a standstill. But this does not mean the UAW is abandoning its efforts in the South or at Volkswagen. The UAW is actively organizing at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, and a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. Also, it likely will continue to work toward unionizing Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant. So, the UAW's efforts to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the South are far from over.
Stay tuned for further updates on organizing efforts by the UAW and other unions as they attempt to build on the growth in private sector union membership they experienced in 2013.