NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Frustrated in past attempts to organize its first foreign automaker in the South, the United Auto Workers union is taking a new approach at Volkswagen's plant in Tennessee.
Instead of seeking another vote to represent the entire blue collar workforce at the German automaker's lone U.S. factory in Chattanooga, the UAW is bidding to organize just a 165-member unit of skilled-trades workers. A two-day vote by that smaller group of workers who repair and maintain machinery at the plant opens Thursday.
"It's just part of an overall strategy to get us to the bargaining table with the company," Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "Because all things are possible in bargaining."
"Do we look at groups that get us in the door to have collective bargaining rights? Absolutely," he said.
The UAW has been thwarted for years in its efforts to represent workers at foreign automakers such as Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi; Mercedes-Benz in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.
Volkswagen's labor-friendly corporate culture has made the German automaker the UAW's top target, but the union lost a vote at the plant in early 2014.
The factory opened to great fanfare in 2011, but sales of the midsized Passat had already begun to slide before revelations about Volkswagen's diesel emissions cheating scandal emerged. The plant is scheduled to begin the additional production of a new SUV next year.
Now, Casteel said, the UAW is seeking out cooperation with counterparts in Germany to try to present a unified front in efforts to improve the union's prospects with manufacturers beyond the Detroit-area automakers of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.
"I'll just be brutally honest about it — we have been doing the same organizing tactics for a long time," Casteel said. "We said we were going to change up the convention, and we're doing that."
Volkswagen wants to create a German-style works council at the plant to represent both hourly and salaried employees, but can't do so under U.S. law without the participation of an independent union.
While the union and Volkswagen agreed on the framework of a 2014 election to unionize the plant and create a works council, the campaign turned acrimonious when anti-labor Republicans and outside groups became involved.
That election ended with a narrow defeat for the union, and subsequent negotiations with the German automaker have failed to significantly change the status of union supporters at the plant.
"Employees have grown increasingly impatient and have decided to exercise their rights under the law," Casteel said.
The new vote on establishing a micro bargaining unit for the skilled-trades workers is taking place despite opposition from Volkswagen.
The company told workers Tuesday it is appealing the National Labor Relations Board decision to let the smaller group seek to unionize. The legal challenge won't stop this week's vote from taking place.
The board's regional director last month rejected Volkswagen's arguments that only the entire hourly workforce of 1,400 employees should be allowed to vote on union representation, not just the "micro unit" of skilled-trades workers.
"The decision to appeal is based on Volkswagen Chattanooga's consistent position that the Chattanooga workforce is one integrated team and our One Team concept is a critical component of our success," Volkswagen said in its announcement.
The UAW has criticized Volkswagen for hiring a law firm that touts its expertise in "strategies for lawful union avoidance," and charges that the aggressive stance against the union is at odds with the German automaker's stated mission of co-determination between workers and management.
"We're disappointed that Volkswagen continues to argue against employees' rights that clearly are protected under federal law," Casteel said. "We're calling on Volkswagen to drop this appeal and instead refocus on the core values that made it a successful brand, including environmental sustainability and employee representation."
Volkswagen has questioned the timing of the UAW's latest push, given the automaker's struggles to cope with the emissions scandal.
The UAW responds that the Chattanooga plant is alone among Volkswagen's plants around the world without formal labor representation. "That needs to change if the plant is going to play a meaningful role in Volkswagen's comeback story," Casteel said.