By Elvina Nawaguna and Bernie Woodall
WASHINGTON/DETROIT, Feb 3 (Reuters) - A historic, far-reaching vote of blue-collar workers at Volkswagen AG’s Tennessee plant on whether they wish to be represented by the United Auto Workers will be held Feb. 12-14, the German automaker and U.S. union said on Monday.
The secret-ballot election will be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, VW said.
“A vote at Volkswagen, whatever the outcome, will send reverberations throughout the Southern auto industry,” Dennis Cuneo, a managing partner of pro-management law firm Fisher & Phillips, said in an email.
The UAW has also been attempting to represent workers at Nissan Motor Co plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, and at a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama.
In a bid to survive as membership dwindles among workers at U.S. automakers, the union has been trying to enlist employees at foreign automakers, who are largely based in the U.S. South, where anti-union sentiment runs high. Success at Volkswagen may bode well for the UAW’s efforts at the other auto companies.
About 1,550 blue-collar workers at the Chattanooga, Tennessee plant will vote on whether the UAW should represent them in wage and benefit talks, said a UAW official.
The vote will the first at a major foreign automaker’s assembly plant for the UAW since its failed attempt to gain the right to represent Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee in 2001. The union lost that vote by a 2-to-1 margin.
The UAW and Volkswagen also want to establish a German-styled works council at the plant, which will represent both blue- and white-collar workers on issues not related to wages and benefits. VW officials vowed not to influence the vote, something the union accused Nissan of doing in 2001.
A works council at VW aligned with a union would be a first in the United States, labor observers have said.
Chattanooga is the only Volkswagen plant outside of China that lacks a works council.
“Volkswagen is committed to neutrality and calls upon all third parties to honor the principle of neutrality,” said Frank Fischer, chief executive of the Chattanooga plant.
Still, some VW officials in the United States have privately said they do not want the UAW at the Chattanooga plant.
UAW President Bob King, in a speech in Washington on Monday, said the union had considered certification by VW without a vote, but he said “right-wing” attacks kept them from doing so.
“These forces against us are more aggressive and bolder than ever in our history,” King said.
Mark Mix, president of the National Right To Work Foundation, said the UAW was hoping to avoid an election, which he said would have taken a basic right away from the workers.
“A secret-ballot election is what Foundation-assisted workers were asking for all along,” said Mix in an email to Reuters.
Mix was also concerned about the existence of “backroom deals” between the UAW and Volkswagen.
On Monday, the president of the VW Global Works Council, Bernd Osterloh, who is also an member of VW’s German union IG Metall, called on Chattanooga plant workers to consider take an objective view of the UAW.
“Don’t believe hearsay,” said Osterloh to plant workers, in a press statement. “Use the opportunity to look at the UAW for yourselves and to decide if they should represent you or not.”
In the past, the UAW has complained that companies like Nissan allow company officials to bad-mouth the union but do not allow the union to speak directly to plant workers. Mike Burton, leader of a group of anti-UAW workers at Chattanooga, said his group is being muffled at Chattanooga.
“There are going to be two team meetings of 500 to 600 workers each and we won’t even be able to take the podium for equal time. That’s wrong,” said Burton.
UAW membership has fallen steadily since reaching a peak of nearly 1.5 million in 1979 to almost 400,000 in 2012, due to automation at assembly plants and a declining share of the U.S. auto market for U.S. automakers General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Outside of union membership at a Mitsubishi Motors Corp plant in the Midwest, nearly all UAW members at automakers are from GM, Ford and Chrysler.
King and the UAW have been attempting to organize the VW plant for more than two years, and believe they have support of a majority of the workers at Chattanooga. But the UAW also was convinced in 2001 that it would win the election among Nissan voters at Smyrna.