Bill Haslam wary of VW union impact on other industries

Bill Haslam wary of VW union impact on other industries

June 26th, 2013 by Mike Pare and Andy Sher in Business Around the Region

Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should VW unionize to expand?

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that the possibility of Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant becoming unionized is coming up as a topic of concern among other industries the state is trying to recruit to Tennessee.

The Republican governor, who opposes the United Auto Workers' unionization efforts, said he has "heard that from some of the other people considering Tennessee that that would be a negative in their mind if that happened in Chattanooga."

"So," Haslam continued, "we've communicated that to Volkswagen. Ultimately, like I said, we want to see them [Volkswagen] grow here."

Meanwhile, an international labor expert said that German labor leaders backing the organizing effort in Chattanooga could influence whether a potential new model is produced in Tennessee or Mexico.

Lowell Turner, a Cornell University international and comparative labor professor, said he interpreted a statement last week by a top leader in VW's global works council to mean that "We'd like to see representation [in Chattanooga] and for it to happen before we look at expansion there."

"If we can expand somewhere else with a more friendly environment, why expand in a place that's hostile to unions and worker representation," Turner said he thought was the message.

Last week, VW Group deputy works council chief Stephan Wolf threatened to block expansion in Chattanooga unless a similar labor panel is put into place at the factory.

Wolf serves on VW's powerful supervisory board, which monitors company management and approves key corporate decisions. He is one of 20 members of the board, half of whom are "employee representatives" consisting of union and works council officials. The board is headed by Ferdinand Piech, the longtime driver of important VW decisions.

The panel also appoints the eight-member management board, which oversees VW's operations on a day-to-day basis and includes CEO Martin Winterkorn as its chairman.

Turner said VW's general works council "does have a lot of power. They have a lot of say in what goes on."

The governor, in his remarks, added that "we're not going to have some big showdown over that [unionization] issue" with Volkswagen.

Moreover, Haslam said, "it depends on who you're talking to at Volkswagen exactly where they stand on the issue" of unionization.

The United Auto Workers has long hoped to unionize Volkswagen's plant, seeing it as an opportunity for the union to make headway with foreign auto "transplant" companies setting up operation in the U.S.

UAW leaders have said they're interested in the German model that involves setting up a works council of plant employees, including white-collar workers, to discuss various issues. But, under U.S. labor law, a union must be approved by plant workers first.

In addition, national business interests are taking note of the Chattanooga VW plant battle with the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute jumping into the issue with an anti-union billboard. The conservative group, which is involved in any number of issues ranging from taxation to the environment, doesn't disclose its donors.

But the Washington Post reported in a blog post that for CEI's annual fundraising dinner last week, donors included energy firms, several conservative foundations including three associated with billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch as well as Google and Facebook.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or Mike Pare at mpare@times freepress.com.