CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Skilled-trades workers at the Volkswagen's lone U.S. plant on Friday voted to be represented by the United Auto Workers, marking the union's first victory at a foreign-owned automaker in the South.
The workers who specialize in repairing and maintaining machinery and robots at the German automaker's factory in Chattanooga voted 108-44 to have the UAW negotiate collective bargaining agreements on their behalf.
The vote comes nearly 20 months after the union was narrowly defeated in an election involving all hourly employees at the plant. The UAW has been thwarted for decades in its attempts to represent workers at outside of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.
Volkswagen had objected to the new vote for the UAW to represent just the 162 skilled-trades workers, arguing that all 1,400 blue-collar workers should have a say over union issues.
"We believe that a union of only maintenance employees fractures our workforce and does not take into account the overwhelming community of interest shared between our maintenance and production employees," the company said in a statement.
The German automaker said it plans to appeal the ruling allowing the vote to the full National Labor Relations Board.
Ray Curry, the director of the UAW's Southern region, said the overwhelming win should persuade Volkswagen to drop its legal challenge.
"We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit," he said at a news conference punctuated by the beeping car and truck horns of celebrating union supporters.
The American Council of Employees, a rival labor group at the Volkswagen plant, in a letter to workers before the vote criticized the move to organize the smaller group of workers. The group said the effort would serve to "subdivide maintenance workers with no concern for how this might negatively impact employees' long-term interests."
The group also criticized the union for seeking the vote amid the automaker's efforts to cope with its diesel emissions cheating scandal that contributed to a 60 percent drop in sales of the Chattanooga-made Passat in November.
"Volkswagen and our facility are in the midst of a crisis," the letter said. "We need unity now more than ever."
Mike Cantrell, the president of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga, said the vote was announced weeks before cheating revelations surfaced.
"The timing of the skilled trades election is unrelated to the Volkswagen emissions scandal," he said.
Volkswagen also argued that the formation of the small bargaining unit goes against its hopes of creating a German-style works council at the plant to represent both hourly and salaried employees. The union disagreed, saying the move by the skilled-trades workers was just a first step.
"We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining," Cantrell said. "And we believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time."