Volkswagen Launches “Passive-Aggressive” Anti-Union Campaign As Dark Money Floods into Chattanooga

Copy of anti-union letter obtained by Payday Report sent by Volkswagen management

As the UAW approaches a historic union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, some observers had remained optimistic that Volkswagen may not launch a full fledge anti-union campaign. The corporation is unionized at 43 of its 45 factories worldwide and has run into strong opposition from their German unions on outright opposing the UAW in the past. 

However, now it appears that Volkswagen has already taken steps to “passive-aggressively” oppose the union, as one worker put it. The moves come as outside anti-union groups are beginning to spend heavily on opposing the unionization effort at the plant. 

In a letter addressed to Volkswagen’s Chattanooga employees obtained by Payday Report, Volkswagen America CEO & President Scott Keogh and Volkswagen CEO and President for Chattanooga Operations Antonio Pinto wrote that they were surprised by the news. 

“We were surprised by the timing of the filing considering our recent [expansion] announcements and continued investment in Chattanooga and Tennessee,” wrote Volkswagen Keogh and Pinto in a letter to the plant’s 1,700 employees obtained by Payday Report. “We’ve heard the concerns that our employees have raised in an open dialogue and we’ve responded with improvements in working conditions: we’ve adjusted shift work, we’ve reduced overtime to have more predictability, and we’ve raised wages.”

The company then warned that a union may hurt open dialogue between management and the union. 

“We intend to continue that open dialogue, but we believe that we can achieve more for all of us that (sic) open dialogue directly,” wrote Volkswagen management in a letter obtained by Payday Report.

However, despite their seemingly anti-union language, Volkswagen pledged to remain neutral. 

“We will respect our employees’ right to petition and vote and will remain neutral throughout this process,” wrote VW management in a letter where they pledged to not interfere or threaten employees for threatening for voting for or against the union. 

However, union supporters say that the letter is yet another example of Volkswagen’s “passive-aggressive” anti-union messaging at the plant. 

“Passive aggressive is their style,” said one Volkswagen worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

“Why would you unionize? We are family. Boo hoo,” joked the worker mocking Volkswagen’s rhetoric. “[It’s a] very abusive family, where they play the victim when called out.”

The letter distributed late last week at the plant in Chattanooga comes as Volkswagen has made a motion to delay the union vote. 

In an argument seen as bad faith by many union supporters, Volkswagen argued that a new union election couldn’t be held at the plant until legal cases surrounding 160 maintenance workers. Those workers, who voted to unionize in 2015 under Obama era rules that allowed small groups of workers within large facilities to vote for a union, without having to have the whole plant vote, have been locked in a series of lawsuits with Volkswagen over recognizing the small union. 

For more than four years, Volkswagen has refused bargain with the micro-union of 160 Volkswagen maintenance workers; leading many to argue that Volkswagen is seeking to delay the vote in order to give anti-union forces more time to mobilize against the union. 

In the hopes of speeding up the election, the UAW dropped their request for the NLRB to recognize the union of 160 maintenance workers at the plant last week. A move which likely has limited negative consequences for the UAW as the Trump NLRB has been ruling against the Obama era rules. 

The UAW is hoping for a speedy election to avoid the pressure cooker of anti-union intimidation that often builds up when elections are delayed. Last week, both the UAW and Volkswagen presented arguments in front of the National Labor Relations Board. about when a union vote for the plant’s 1,700 workers may happen at the company. This week, the NLRB is expected to announce the date of the election, which could come as soon as May. 

As dark money begins to flood into Chattanooga to oppose the union drive, UAW supporters are hoping that the election will happen as soon as possible. 

The anti-union group Center for Union Facts has taken out full-page ads in Chattanooga-area newspaper highlighting a recent corruption scandal over embezzlement and misuse of joint labor-management committee funds within the UAW that has led to the convictions of four former top UAW officials. 

Senator Marsha Blackburn also has taken to publicly criticizing the UAW in the press saying “We don’t need union bosses in Detroit telling Tennessee what’s best for our workers.” 

The UAW quickly shot back at Blackburn. 

“Where was Sen. Blackburn when Chattanooga workers have had to scramble to arrange child care because of last-minute overtime notifications?” UAW spokesperson Brian Rothenberg told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. 

It’s unclear if Blackburn, who built her career as a politician in the far western part of the state, will be as effective of an anti-union messenger as Chattanooga’s own retired Senator Bob Corker was in 2014. 

Corker was a former developer and Mayor of Chattanooga, who played a major role in the economic expansion of Chattanooga. He used his economic expertise combined with his former union membership in the Laborers Union to argue that he wasn’t anti-union, just anti-UAW; arguing that bringing in the UAW would turn Chattanooga’s economy into Detroit’s. 

In an interview with the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, Corker said that he was not going to get involved in the anti-union efforts at the plant. (In 2014, Corker also pledged early on not to get involved in the union before ultimately playing a key role in defeating the union). 

Five years after workers at Volkswagen voted down the union by a 43 vote margin, despite the delays and threats, workers at the plant are hopeful that the vote will be very different this time around. 

“Volkswagen might think that if they stall and delay, we will give up. But we will continue to work for a seat at the table, the same as every other Volkswagen worker around the world,” wrote the UAW in a statement released late last week. “After all these years, we know the issues and have all the information we need to make a decision.”

Donate to Payday to Help Us Get Back to Chattanooga to Cover the Union Election at Volkswagen.  

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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