Monday’s announcement that Volkswagen employees will get a vote about whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers brought to a head a controversy that’s been brewing for years and left some questioning if the company is maintaining a neutral stance.
CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga Frank Fischer said that the election means that workers will get to decide in a secret ballot election that will be independently conducted by National Labor Relations Board officials.
"Volkswagen is committed to neutrality and calls upon all third parties to honor the principle of neutrality," he also said in a prepared statement.
But Volkswagen officials denied requests from some employees—who don’t support the UAW’s efforts—to share their thoughts about "alternative methods of worker representation."
Headed up by Volkswagen employee Mike Burton, who also created the site No2UAW.com, the workers sent a letter to Fischer and Vice President of Human Resources Sebastian Patta with two requests.
The first request was for access to the conference center or training center at the VW plant to discuss alternative organization possibilities with employees.
The second request was for a copy of the "Excelsior list," which—according to Burton's letter—is a list of contact information for employees who are eligible to vote in a union election.
Several employees and lawyers representing Burton said it doesn’t seem neutral that his requests were denied.
In addition to not being able to present his side, Burton said that the fast-track timing of the election is upsetting.
According to the National Labor Relations Board website, "Typically, elections are held within 30 days of a director's order or authorization."
Greg King with the NLRB said that Volkswagen officials filed the petition Monday morning. By noon, the election had been set for Feb. 12, he also said.
Maury Nicely—with local law firm Evans Harrison Hackett, which is representing some Volkswagen employees—said it’s his understanding that UAW officials will be allowed inside the plant to share information with workers.
The first such opportunity is expected to occur at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, when UAW leaders will speak to employees during an all-team meeting.
When asked Monday, a UAW representative had no comment about how the union would proceed.
"Employees who are part of the Volkswagen family, who work there every day, who have the best interest of their jobs and the company at heart, are not allowed to have meeting space in the company to present information," Nicely said.
But local labor attorney Jimmy F. Rodgers Jr., with Summers and Wyatt, said that allowing more outside people to weigh in might be a slippery slope for the company.
Rodgers doesn’t currently work with VW or the UAW but represents many other unions in town.
Although Burton is a VW employee and said he is representing about 600 other employees, some outside groups, such as Matt Patterson—executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform's Center for Worker Freedom—have been active in the discussion.
And in addition to being represented by local firm Evans Harrison Hackett, VW employees have also had help from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, based in Virginia.
"If you let them in, what about the next guy?" Rodgers said. "If they are going to allow outside groups into this process, where do they draw the line?"
King didn’t fully respond to questions about whether federal law prohibits Volkswagen officials from fulfilling requests made by Burton.
He did say that "only the labor organizations who are parties to the case receive the voting eligibility list."
Both Nicely and Rodgers said it’s their understanding that Volkswagen could have allowed Burton or other workers to speak at the plant.
The UAW's Gary Casteel told The Wall Street Journal he doesn't think that anti-union workers should be allowed to campaign inside the plant.
"The company has no obligation to give them access," he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "Since UAW representation has been in discussion ever since the plant opened, workers don't need a long time to make up their minds."
The local situation is unique in that some officials with Volkswagen AG have expressed that they want Chattanooga’s plant to be a member of the works council.
Those sentiments, in part, spawned charges against the UAW and Volkswagen America. The NLRB recommended that those charges be dismissed.
That prompted National Right to Work Foundation attorneys to request an official inquiry into conduct surrounding the suggestion by NLRB officials that the charges be dismissed.
Federal law doesn’t allow for a works council to be formed in the United States the same way it is done in Germany. But VW and UAW officials said that if the majority of employees approve representation, the UAW will implement a German-style works council.
Under the works council model, employees would have representation on a wide range of internal issues, such as working hours and conditions. The UAW would still negotiate compensation and benefits.
And some Volkswagen employees have expressed support for the works council.
"With a local works council, workers would have a voice they can use to make Volkswagen stronger in safety, job security and efficiency," Jonathan Walden, Volkswagen paint technician, said in a prepared statement from the UAW. "Global representation means Chattanooga workers may have a strong voice in seeking new products and bringing more jobs to Tennessee."