Earlier this week, the United Auto Workers (UAW) reached the “highest level” of recognition among workers at Volkswagen’s (VW) Chattanooga, TN plant.  Under VW’s new labor policy, which we previously reported on here, once a given labor union garners a certain percentage of employee signatures, it is entitled to meet bi-weekly with VW officials on campus.

Monday, VW announced that at least 45% of its Chattanooga workers have signed on with Local 42 of the UAW.  Along with bi-weekly meetings between UAW and VW officials, the UAW is now also entitled to more frequent plant access in order to hold meetings and post notices. 

Even though the UAW now has a sort of “preferred status” at VW’s Chattanooga plant, the UAW is striving for more.  Rather than holding another election like the one the UAW shockingly lost in February, UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel is hoping that VW voluntarily recognizes the UAW as its employees’ official bargaining representative.

“In the initial conversations, the local union will remind human resources and the Chattanooga Executive Committee of the mutually agreed-upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and the UAW last spring in Germany. Among those commitments — Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members,” he said.

But not everyone is happy with the UAW’s progress.  The American Council of Employees (ACE), a rival union that is also seeking to represent VW’s Chattanooga employees, released a statement calling VW’s new labor policy “unfair.”  ACE’s attorney also spoke out against the policy:

“A company can’t give improper benefits to a union. In a situation like this with competing labor organizations, the company has to be careful not to give out a benefit that is unduly advantageous to one side or another.”

And Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a longtime critic of the UAW, has piled on as well, contending that any union presence should be confirmed through a vote, instead of by voluntary recognition from the company.

“We want the company to be consistent in what they’ve told us they are going to do,” Haslam said. “They’ve always said that if they have a vote that has ramifications for the company it would be the way we do votes in America, which is secret ballots.”

Whatever happens at the VW plant, it is clear that the UAW’s long-term strategy is to expand its reach throughout the South.  With Tennessee’s unionized employee percentage at a meager 6.1%, UAW officials see a major opportunity to replenish their ranks.  The UAW currently counts approximately 400,000 workers among its members, which stands in stark contrast to the 1.5 million employees it represented back in 1979.  Accordingly, employers in the South would do well to pay close attention to the UAW’s actions.  Otherwise, the UAW could come knocking with union cards or a petition.