published Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Supplier to Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant turns back UAW

Factory workers perform diagnostics on a Passat in the assembly section of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in this file photo.
Factory workers perform diagnostics on a Passat in the assembly section of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in this file photo.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Workers for a Volkswagen, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz supplier in Tuscaloosa, Ala., have turned back a bid to join the United Auto Workers union, which is trying to organize VW's Chattanooga assembly plant.

Employees at the Faurecia Interior Systems plant rejected the UAW proposal by a vote of 86-62 on Thursday. But a UAW official said workers were threatened, harassed and intimidated by anti-union lawyers and management.

"The workers were bombarded with anti-[union] literature almost daily and forced to attend anti-meetings," said Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director in Lebanon, Tenn., in an email. Casteel said the law was violated by the company, and the UAW plans to help the workers pursue remedies.

However, Matt Patterson, a senior fellow at Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Economic Freedom in Washington, D.C, and an opponent of the UAW's efforts at Volkswagen, said the vote in Alabama "can only encourage those fighting against unionization elsewhere in the South, including and especially in Chattanooga."

A Faurecia spokeswoman said the company has worked for many years with various unions where plant employees choose to be represented, as well as those who don't.

Stacie Tong of Faurecia North America said officials are "pleased that our employees have confirmed our joint effort to make the Tuscaloosa plant a success," she said. "Faurecia works proactively with all of its employees to manage its operations consistently and effectively for all its stakeholders...." The company makes center consoles, instrument panels and other components for car interiors.

According to Faurecia, the Tuscaloosa plant indirectly supplies the assembly of the VW Passat in Chattanooga through subassemblies produced and sent to other Faurecia plants or other companies that ultimately supply the Tennessee facility.

Earlier this year, VW's board member in charge of human resources said the German automaker may release a plan for the European-type works council at the Chattanooga plant. Such a labor board, which could represent blue- and white-collar employees of a plant over issues such as hours or working conditions, is envisioned by the UAW. Some experts said that for the labor board to be set up, employees at the plant would need to unionize.

VW's Chattanooga plant would become the first auto factory in the U.S. to have such a German-style works council arrangement, according to experts.

At the Alabama plant, UAW organizers urged workers to support unionization, though a group of employees joined an entity called Union-Free Faurecia to oppose the bid. Mercedes has an assembly plant in nearby Vance, Ala., which is not unionized but the focus of a UAW effort to do so.

Casteel said the UAW has had success at some suppliers around the Mercedes plant already. He said the union represents about 600 workers in four different suppliers to Mercedes -- Inteva, ZF Industries, JCI and a separate Faurecia facility.

"We won elections at JCI and Faurecia last year," Casteel said.

At the Tuscaloosa supplier plant, he said, a Nissan representative was allowed in the facility and workers were told if they unionize, then work for that automaker was in jeopardy.

"I'm extremely proud of these workers for withstanding as much intimidation as was heaped upon them," Casteel said. "It is really amazing as many stood firm as they did."

Patterson, however, said the vote this week wasn't made in a vacuum.

"The poisonous effect that the union has had on factories and companies in which it has organized is well known," he said, whose group as put up an anti-UAW billboard off Highway 153. "It's a history that the UAW simply cannot run away from, especially in light of the bankruptcy of Detroit, hometown and capital of the UAW."

Faurecia has a plant at VW's Chattanooga supplier park, where the parts company invested roughly $2 million to provide emissions systems for the Passat. The company, based in France, is the sixth biggest automotive supplier in the world.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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