Chattanooga is finding itself in the center of an increasingly pitched battle over unionizing Volkswagen's auto assembly plant.
A Washington, D.C.-based group is ramping up a summer-long campaign to convince plant workers and Chattanoogans in general about what it calls "devastating" consequences for the factory, city and state should the employees unionize.
Pro-union forces, such as the Michigan-based United Auto Workers, continue to press their case for what they say is "a new model" where the workforce and management aren't adversarial but rather vie for the same goal.
Matt Patterson, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center For Economic Freedom, said his group has put up a billboard on Highway 153, just a few miles from the VW plant, to help get its message across about the dangers of unions and the UAW.
The billboard depicts a rundown former Detroit, Mich., auto plant and states "Auto unions ATE Detroit. Next meal: Chattanooga?"
Plans are to begin efforts to educate business leaders, politicians and citizens "about the history, tactics and legacy of this powerful union," according to a website, WorkplaceChoice.org, sponsored by the group.
Patterson said he's talking with local tea party activists to discuss strategy in terms of distributing materials such as pamphlets.
Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said he will talk with Patterson, and generally he favors what the group is doing.
"We'd generally resist unionizing a plant," he said. "We've seen what happened with unions across the country, specifically Detroit."
Ed Hunter, a Volkswagen employee and union supporter, said education efforts are ongoing to inform employees about a German-style works council labor board and "the new UAW."
"Our group is expanding every day," he said, adding that people see the German model as one in which "everybody is working for the same goal."
At the VW plant, Juergen Stumpf, who has extensive experience as an employee representative in the VW Group and is considered an expert on the German works councils system, has been assigned to the Chattanooga factory.
"Mr. Stumpf is currently on assignment in Chattanooga to be an information resource for the local management and employees regarding the German model of co-determination," said plant spokesman Scott Wilson.
Bob King, the UAW president, last week told Automotive News that the German co-determination system helps give workers "a stronger voice, and therefore make the company more successful."
"We would be really open to building that kind of a system in the U.S., through the UAW contracts with a number of different employers," he said.
In the UAW's new principles for organizing, the union says that global competition in the auto market has changed the way it operates and the union "no longer presumes an adversarial work environment with strict work rules" or narrow job classifications.
"The UAW of the 21st century inhabits a global economy, therefore, the union must be fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the 20th century," the union says in its "Principles for Fair Union Elections."
In Chattanooga, union organizers are trying to garner the signatures of a majority of the company's rank-and-file workforce on cards authorizing the UAW to represent them.
Works councils represent employees, even white-collar workers, in discussions with the company about such issues as pay and working conditions, and it's a separate body from the union. Under U.S. labor law, employees must set up a works council and a union would be required to do so, officials have said.
The Chattanooga plant is the only major VW facility that does not have a works council, according to the company. Earlier this year, VW's top human resource official globally said it was talking with the UAW about a works council in Chattanooga.
Organizing the Chattanooga plant would be a victory for the UAW as it tries to grow its shrinking numbers through workers at factories owned by foreign automakers.
Last week, a top official for the global works council for VW threatened to block a future expansion of the Chattanooga plant until "it is clear how to proceed with the employees' representation in the United States." VW's local officials and Chattanooga leaders are trying to attract production of a new sport utility vehicle to the factory.
West said that kind of threat is "indicative of the problem. Generally, unions threaten and demand."
He said he sees the union issue as a free market one.
"We lean toward the free market," West said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.