published Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Corker: Volkswagen expansion in Chattanooga was off if UAW won

UAW says Chattanooga local at over 670 members

Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant is the target of outside anti-union groups.
Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant is the target of outside anti-union groups.
  • photo
    The Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga has been chosen to build a new SUV.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    U.S. Sen. Bob Corker speaks Wednesday to Chattanooga Times Free Press staff.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

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While the United Auto Workers says its Chattanooga local has signed up more than 670 Volkswagen workers, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Wednesday that the VW plant expansion would not have happened had the union won the factory's February election.

"What I know for a fact ... the announcement would not have occurred for a lot of reasons," Corker said. "Plenty of people in Germany understood the impact."

One reason Corker cited was concerns raised by Republican state lawmakers about the UAW and the election process at the plant.

"Look at where the General Assembly was," the former Chattanooga mayor said.

State House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville; House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, said just prior to the vote that state incentives for the expansion would be in jeopardy should the UAW win the election.

Gary Casteel, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, said Wednesday he doesn't know if lawmakers would have "killed off 2,000 jobs" over an ideological position against unionizing the plant.

But, he said, VW doesn't have a problem with union representation at the factory.

"VW and the UAW negotiated an election agreement. They didn't have to do that. VW gave us access [to workers during the election]. It had a neutral stance," Casteel said. "If they had a hesitance, why did they do all those things?"

Last month, VW said it would assemble a new sport utility vehicle in Chattanooga. It will invest $900 million, including $600 million in the city, and employ another 2,000 people. The state said it is providing $177.8 million in grants and training assistance as part of the $274.2 million incentive package for the expansion.

The UAW lost the February organizing vote, 712 to 626 margin. In June, the UAW set up a non-dues-paying local in Chattanooga and started signing up members.

Casteel said the local has signed up "substantially more" than 670 members, which would have been enough to win the election.

Earlier, he said that if the local signed up a meaningful portion of VW's Chattanooga work force, "we're confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members' union that represents those employees who join the local."

VW said in a statement in June that there's no "formal" agreement between the company and the union. The company didn't comment Wednesday.

At the same time, anti-UAW advocates at the plant are asking VW workers to sign a form revoking their UAW authorization cards.

"To the extent that I, the undersigned employee, have ever previously signed a union authorization card or other indication of support for union representation, I ... revoke that card, effective immediately," the form says.

It also says that should VW voluntarily recognize the union, the employee petitions the National Labor Relations Board to hold a decertification election.

Casteel said the local on Tuesday chose a 13-person committee that will oversee the election of officers soon.

He said the UAW has just two people in Chattanooga, and that it is VW workers who are signing up new members to the local.

"They've grown the local to the point where it is today," Casteel said.

Meanwhile, Corker told Times Free Press reporters and editors, before delivering the keynote speech at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting, that what happens in relation to the UAW is up to the plant's workers.

But he asserted that momentum by the UAW in the state would have a negative effect on Tennessee's business recruitment efforts.

Corker said he spoke after the UAW vote with the chief executive of a company looking to come to the state who was relieved at the outcome of the election.

"I hope for the good of our state and the auto industry in the state ... that the UAW does not represent them," he said. "I hope that with every cell of my body."

Corker said there was "no way" the VW plant could survive producing just one vehicle, citing the importance of last month's announcement.

"It can't operate profitably with just one line," he said.

Corker also said that Mexico, where a VW plant also had been vying for the SUV, had re-entered the fight to land the new vehicle before the company made its decision to put it in Chattanooga. He noted that a Pennsylvania VW plant had failed in 1988.

Corker said VW's investment and a planned research and development center at the Enterprise South industrial park "drives stakes deep" into Chattanooga.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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