CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Employees at the Volkswagen auto plant here will vote Friday on whether to join the United Auto Workers union, marking the end of a fevered battle between national conservative groups and labor leaders over the future of the right-to-work South.
If a majority of Volkswagen’s 1,570 hourly workers vote yes, it would mark the first time in nearly three decades of trying that the UAW has successfully organized a plant for a foreign brand in the United States. This time, the union has a powerful ally: Volkswagen itself, which is hoping the union will collaborate in a German-style “works council” and help manage plant operations.
Tennessee’s Republican leaders — along with well-funded conservative groups like Grover Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom — are not letting the UAW in without a fight. Sen. Bob Corker, who wooed VW to town as mayor of Chattanooga, has been barnstorming media outlets to complain about the company’s betrayal and the danger of giving the UAW a toehold.
“There’s no question that the UAW organizing there will have an effect on our community’s ability to continue to recruit businesses,” Corker said. Of the UAW, he added: “This is all about money for them. They feel like, if they can get up under the hood with a company in the South, then they can make progress in other places.”
National labor leaders agree that Chattanooga would be a seminal victory and are watching the vote closely.
“This is enormously important for the labor movement as a whole,” said Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “The European transplants are a puzzle that the American labor movement has been trying to work out for decades, and the UAW seems to have figured it out.”
For their part, Volkswagen executives are lying low and claiming to be neutral. They acknowledge their desire for a works council, arguing that their model of labor-management relations serves them well in every other country in the world, except China. Under U.S. law, the company cannot set up a works council without first having its employees vote for a union.
This week, however, GOP state Sen. Bo Watson threatened VW directly , warning that a potential expansion at the plant would have a “very tough time” winning tax incentives from the Republican-controlled Senate in Nashville if the election succeeds.
Volkswagen has already received $577 million in state tax breaks and assistance to build its state-of-the-art facility; it is considering whether it will expand the Chattanooga plant and add 2,000 workers to build SUVs, or send the work to Mexico.
Meanwhile, conservative groups are pouring money into town, viewing Chattanooga as key to blocking labor’s momentum. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation helped eight Volkswagen workers challenge union election procedures, alleging that VW did not give anti-union activists equal access to workers. Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom has been handing out fliers to plant employees opposing the union, and it has placed 11 billboards around town with slogans like: “Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW.”
The response from workers has been mixed. VW employees in Chattanooga already enjoy some of the most generous wages and benefits in the state. And even union advocates acknowledge that management treats them well. That’s why some workers — and their families — oppose the union for its mandatory dues and its complicated politics.
Candy and Steve, a couple eating hash browns, eggs and toast at a Waffle House during Wednesday night’s snowstorm, said their son works as a quality control manager at the VW plant — and that he plans to vote no.
“If you worked at a place that didn’t treat the workers fairly, it’d be a whole different thing,” said Candy, who declined to give her last name to avoid identifying her son.
“The people who think this is going to help them is the lower-wage workers; they think this is going to help them move up the line,” she said. “And it’s not fair to the people who are working their tails off all day, that the people who don’t pull their share of the load are protected by the union.”
Others have been persuaded by the promise of greater influence and respect.
Jonathan Walden, 39, worked in Alabama in low-wage food service and retail until landing a job in Volkswagen’s paint shop, where he is paid $17 an hour. Walden, who describes himself as “so conservative I’m liberal,” said he was initially skeptical about the union. But the more he thought about it, the more collectivism started to sound all right.
“It’s a sense and knowledge that my input is being taken into account, and that I am a part of the process,” Walden said, instead of “I’m here and what I’m doing is what they’re telling me to do.”
UAW organizers have been emphasizing their willingness to collaborate with Volkswagen. They note that joining a works council would limit the areas over which they have authority mainly to wages and benefits. The larger council would have responsibility for such things as working conditions, scheduling and time off.
“You look at all the press the politicians are putting out, ‘Same old union, don’t mess with them.’ But we’re actively trying to produce this new model of representation,” UAW Southern Region director Gary Casteel said as voting got underway in Chattanooga this week.
“If we’re successful, it should show employers that we’re willing to work with the systems that are important to them, Casteel said. “The UAW has no experience with a works council. But we’re willing to develop some.”
As the ideological war rages around them, Tennessee’s job creators have mostly remained quiet. The Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association, the Global Automakers association of foreign car companies, the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry all either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.
Bill Hagerty, commissioner of economic development for the state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, acknowledges that he has had no trouble attracting auto suppliers to Tennessee in the years since VW started talking about a works council. There are now a total of 650 firms, employing 94,000 people.
“They’re concerned whether the activity in our state might spill over into their operations, but we’ve been able to allay their concerns,” Hagerty said. “We’ve still been able to succeed in this environment.”
State Rep. Mike Sparks (R), whose district includes the non-union Nissan plant in Smyrna, a town outside of Nashville, is not convinced. Increasingly, he sees the Nissan plant cutting regular jobs and hiring temporary workers, who do not earn as much or qualify for the same benefits. But Sparks said he does not believe unionization is the answer, worrying that the 7,000 auto-related jobs in his district could disappear altogether if the UAW catches on.
“I’ve been told by a very credible source that if Nissan ever unionized, they would leave the state of Tennessee,” Sparks said. “That would devastate my community.”
In Chattanooga, VW worker Chris Brown sees things differently. His grandfather helped organize a copper mine and his mother helped organize a Levi Strauss factory, and Brown had always hoped to become a union man himself. If the UAW election succeeds, he said, it will be easier to spread the benefits across the entire South.
“Because when they see the difference it makes in workers’ lives, having union representation, it’s no longer a story about someone who lives on the other side of the country,” Brown said. “It’s your next-door neighbor telling you about it.”