published Friday, February 14th, 2014

For Sen. Corker, the UAW vote is personal with passions high for, against UAW

  • photo
    Frank Fischer and Bob Corker are seen in this composite photo.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said this week that the only votes he has missed during his Senate stint were related to Volkswagen business and when he was on a trip to Israel, and that was an unexpected one.

"There's not a week that goes by when we don't talk to someone at VW USA or VW in Germany," he said, noting his first recruitment call as a senator was to Volkswagen.

And when VW chief Martin Winterkorn won a major award in New York, Corker said he was asked to introduce the CEO.

"I've been involved in this all the way through," Corker said about the automaker and its connection with Chattanooga.

The senator's passion, and that of some United Auto Workers supporters, has spilled over this week as VW workers vote on whether to unionize at the Chattanooga plant. The three-day voting period is to end tonight.

Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director who has been working to organize VW for a couple of years, said that working with the automaker is "an example of collaborative trust between VW and UAW."

He said the cooperation "should open some eyes" and give people a new way of looking at the union's interest in working with car makers such as VW.

"It's a testament that we are willing to work together," he said.

Corker, meanwhile, first indicated he was going to remain quiet through the election process. But since Tuesday, he has weighed into the fray on three occasions, returning to Chattanooga from Washington, D.C., for a press conference and then issuing a pair of statements related to VW's plans to produce a sport utility vehicle.

A couple of labor experts have raised the possibility that he's flirting with running afoul of U.S. labor law with his statement that should workers vote against the union, VW will announce in coming weeks that it will make a SUV in Chattanooga.

Nashville attorney Gerald Stranch said if VW is using Corker to spread statements that would violate labor law, then the automaker would have liability.

"The question is whether Corker also has liability and I think he might," said Stranch, who has represented labor unions, but not the UAW, and who's general counsel for the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Corker is standing by his statement. But the Tennessee Republican told The Associated Press he didn't inquire whether the German automaker would decide not to build a new midsized SUV at the plant if the UAW wins.

Since Corker's original SUV remarks, Frank Fischer, who oversees VW's Chattanooga operations, said in a statement that the company's position remains that the union vote won't influence the expansion decision.

Chattanooga attorney Maury Nicely, associated with the anti-union group Southern Momentum, said he doesn't see any problems with Corker's remarks.

"The way I look at it, he was relaying information he heard," he said. "He's not a party to the situation."

Dr. Lowell Turner, who heads The Worker Institute at Cornell University, said that people on the union side are passionate about what's happening because the VW plant is an opportunity to try out a new form of representation in America. A works council, where blue- and white-collar employees meet to discuss issues such as training, safety and work hours, at the VW plant would be a first for a U.S. automaker.

"It has been extraordinarily successful for VW around the world," he said.

For anti-union supporters, he has seen a lot of passion from "outside forces."

"These people are passionately ideological," he said, with beliefs coming out of an American managerial philosophy of "it's my company and nobody is going to tell me how to run my company."

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, said pro-UAW advocates see the VW situation as a chance for unions to grow and have greater influence.

He said unions become more attractive when there's increasing concern about social and economic mobility.

Those against unions don't want them "to get their nose in the tent" in terms of other businesses, Oppenheimer said.

For Corker, the issue is about the city, he said earlier this week.

"If I didn't think the UAW would have a negative impact on our ability to recruit [businesses], candidly I don't care. I wouldn't care," he said. "This is not an anti-union thing."

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.

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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