A lot of eyes around the country — for that matter, around the world — will be on Southeast Tennessee later this week.
German-owned Volkswagen’s Chattanooga assembly plant has roughly 1,600 employees scheduled Feb. 12-14 to vote whether to invite one of the nation’s largest unions, the United Auto Workers, to represent them in developing a “works council” to help negotiate labor policies and agreements at the facility.
No other plant in America has a works council, although they are commonplace in Germany. The Chattanooga plant is reportedly the only major Volkswagen operation that doesn’t have one.
The National Labor Relations Board is conducting the Wednesday-to-Friday election. Regardless of the outcome, the election is milestone in U.S. auto-manufacturing: it is the first formal unionization push in 13 years at a non-Detroit-run factory.
UAW President Bob King said last week his organization is eager to “partner with” Volkswagen in developing a works council in hopes of setting “a new standard in the U.S. for innovative labor-management relations that benefits the company, the entire workforce, shareholders and the community.”
“The historic success of the works council model is in line with the UAW’s successful partnerships with the domestic automakers and its vision of the 21st century union,” King said in a Feb. 2 press release from UAW.
However, two of Tennessee’s highest profile statewide officeholders, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, have declared open hostility to UAW getting a foothold in Tennessee.
Haslam, a former mayor of Knoxville, and Corker, past mayor of Chattanooga, say unionization in a right-to-work state like Tennessee is bad for business — particularly if the union in question is UAW.
Corker has said he’s not so opposed to the idea of a German-style works council, per se, or perhaps even to unionization. But he’s unapologetically on unfriendly terms with United Auto Workers. “There’s plenty of unions other than the UAW,” Corker told The Associated Press last summer. He’s called UAW a “destructive force” and warned VW it risks becoming a “laughingstock” among car-makers if it willingly allows UAW to organize a plant.
Gov. Haslam has opposed UAW at VW Chattanooga on the grounds that it may endanger not only the company’s future in the state, but could also give pause to others thinking of locating operations in Tennessee.
Haslam said his administration is particularly keen to recruit companies that service the automotive industry. The governor said he hopes attracting related industries to the region will result in lower “logistical costs” for the likes of VW.
However, if UAW establishes a presence here, it could wreck those plans, said Haslam.
“I know UAW will not help us bring other suppliers because they have told us that. They have said, ‘If UAW comes in there we are going to be much less likely to locate a plant close to Chattanooga’,” the governor said Thursday at the Tennessee Press Association’s winter conference in Nashville.
Haslam also noted that VW is planning to manufacture a new midsize SUV soon. His administration has been coaxing company officials to make Chattanooga the new model’s birthplace, he said.
However, unionization at the plant will hamper cost-control efforts there, the governor said. And that’s been a problem area already working against Chattanooga and in favor of VW making the sport vehicle in Mexico instead. Tennessee can ill afford another variable in the mix that makes expansion south of the border look more attractive to VW, said Haslam.
The governor acknowledged during the TPA event that he’s been “very vocal” on the subject of UAW in Chattanooga, and that critics have put the question to him, “Why is it your business?”
The answer in part, said the governor, is that “the state of Tennessee put a whole lot of money in that plant.” Haslam described the $577 million taxpayer-financed incentive package used to help lure the German automaker as “a considerable investment by the state of Tennessee.”
“We’re just saying the same thing that we’ve always said, that the state has a vested interest in this, and from our viewpoint what we are hearing from other companies is that it matters what happens in that vote,” said Haslam.