CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — For weeks, ads have played during commercial breaks on Hulu and been posted on billboards in and around the city. Gov. Bill Lee stumped against the proposal in late April.
But starting at 4:45 a.m. Wednesday and running until Friday evening, the 1,700 hourly employees in Volkswagen’s “Dynamo of Dixie” plant will slip their secret paper ballots into a ballot box to answer the question: Will the workers unionize in an effort to change the working conditions at the plant or will they once again reject the attempts to join the United Auto Workers?
Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga narrowly rejected the first effort to unionize five years ago.
The plant is a strategic spot for labor issues: an attempt to unionize a major auto plant in the South, which has been historically resistant to unions.
According to UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg, the issue is whether the Chattanooga workers will be represented by a local chapter of the UAW.
“Chattanooga workers are the only VW workers in the world that have to ask the boss, not sit across as an equal and bargain with the boss,” Rothenberg said in an interview. “Why should Chattanooga workers be any different? Why should they be different than GM in Spring Hill [Tennessee]?”
Critics of UAW’s second attempt at the Volkswagen plant say the UAW could imperil the facility’s long-term health, and questions about the effects of unionization ripple through the businesses surrounding and serving the Chattanooga plant.
But one voice has remained a whisper in all of this: Volkswagen’s.
Dan Gilmore, an adjunct at the school of business at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said Volkswagen has portrayed itself as neutral party during the recent discussion on whether to unionize.
In 2014, Volkswagen filed the petition to hold a unionization vote with the National Labor Relations Board. This time around, it was the UAW that filed the petition to hold a vote.
The petition with the NLRB hit a snag because of an existing dispute between Volkswagen and a group of 162 maintenance workers at the plant represented by UAW. After Local 42 withdrew from the disagreement, the petition for a plant-wide unionization vote was resubmitted and approved.
“VW has continued to take a public position of being neutral, while Southern Momentum appears to be doing a good job of having VW’s back in response to attacks on its position and corporate practices as well as holding the UAW’s feet to the fire in the way the vast majority of American employers would do it in this situation,” Gilmore wrote in an email to Courthouse News.
A spokesman for Volkswagen did not respond to a request for comment.
Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga-based labor and employment attorney, said the organization he represents, Southern Momentum, is not so much as anti-union as it is anti-UAW.
Nicely said Southern Momentum is a nonprofit designed to rebut UAW’s messaging and amplify the voices the workers who are skeptical of UAW.
Some programs that Volkswagen workers enjoy, such as their vehicle-lease program that allows employees to lease cars at favorable rates, may be placed upon the negotiation table, Nicely said.
“This is certainly not a statement that unionization in and of itself is a negative thing,” Nicely said in an interview. “We think the UAW would bring a negative and corrupt influence that just would not be good for this plant, for these workers or for our community. I think from a very broad macro perspective, I think you look at the UAW and what do they bring? Nothing. The UAW brings a trail of failure.”
Nicely said UAW is trying to move south from the Rust Belt in search of new members who could pay dues that cost them 2½ hours a month in wages — even as leaders in the organization have pleaded guilty or been sentenced on corruption charges.
Justin Owen, CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a think tank that advocates for free-market policies, said in a statement that UAW would probably not operate with the best interests of the Volkswagen workers or the Volunteer State in mind.
“Tennessee has proudly been a right-to-work state for more than 70 years,” Owens said. “Our state boasts an extremely strong economy in part because of that status.”
Last month, Gov. Lee made an unannounced visit to the plant to speak with some of the workers. In an address, he warned against a pro-union vote.
An article published by The Intercept obtained documents that found Lee’s office was emailing with Volkswagen, coordinating the governor’s actions.
Courthouse News reached out to members of Lee’s communications team, which did not respond to requests for comment.
In Chattanooga, Volkswagen, sitting on winding Volkswagen Drive in the northeastern corner of the city, serves as one of the city’s economic powerhouses. Earlier this year, Volkswagen announced that Chattanooga would be making the company’s electric vehicles.
Volkswagen announced it would come to Chattanooga during the Great Recession, and began operating there in 2011.
Daniel Maddox has worked at Volkswagen for eight years, six of them on the line. These days, he works in finishing, rolling and alignment. Maddox spoke to reporters recently with a handful of other Volkswagen workers at an event organized by the UAW. The workers hoped UAW would bring stability to their schedules, respect from their supervisors, boost wages and make the plant safer.
For Matt Sexton, who works in the assembly shop installing doors, Volkswagen has been circumventing rules meant to help workers on the job. Often, it places workers back on jobs that got them injured in the first place, Sexton said.
The history of labor is replete with stories of workers organizing to create safer work environments. “Now, companies are beginning to circumvent these laws, making it necessary once again to have our representation,” Sexton said.
“For example, if you get injured, we’ll go back to the injury thing, you get injured, you go to medical, they have a doctor there. And regardless of what your injury is, it’s always a preexisting condition.”
Workers say they waited six years to get a 50-cent wage, which was announced near the beginning of the year and which they should be getting in the next few weeks.
For Maddox, joining the UAW will bring stability, and a better opportunity to save for retirement and bolster a college education fund for his and his fiancée’s three children.
“Everything in there you can take apart with a screwdriver or with a wrench because everything is on bolts and nuts,” Maddox said. “So you can take that whole plant up if they wanted to and move it somewhere else. What’s stopping them from doing that if they want to do it? We don’t have a contract.”
At one point before joining Volkswagen, Maddox worked two jobs to support his children. When he was growing up, Maddox’s mother, Annette Stallion, also needed to work multiple jobs. Today, Maddox and his mother and his younger brother all work at the plant.
Stallion said she feels pride, catching a glimpse of the car she helped build in Chattanooga parked at a grocery store. But after Maddox underwent surgery to fix carpal tunnel syndrome he got while installing fuel lines, her opinion about working for the company shifted.
“With everything with being unionized, hopefully a lot of those issues will be addressed and made better so that my grandkids can come to Volkswagen and have a great career there,” Stallion said. “But as it is now, no.”