Volkswagen appears ready to add a second vehicle line and hire hundreds of additional workers in Chattanooga even if hourly employees at VW's assembly plant vote against representation by the United Auto Workers, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Wednesday night as the unionization vote began.
"I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new midsize SUV here in Chattanooga," Corker said in a statement released Wednesday night.
Corker, who said he talks regularly with Volkswagen managers, stopped short of saying that UAW representation would mean that Volkswagen might go elsewhere to build its new vehicle. But the former Chattanooga mayor, an outspoken critic of the UAW, claims that the union would make it more expensive for VW to produce its new crossover vehicle in Chattanooga.
VW CEO Martin Winterkorn said last month the company wants to add a new SUV to the market in North America. The German auto maker is considering whether to build the new model in Chattanooga or in Puebla, Mexico.
VW officials have stressed that the UAW vote, in and of itself, will not determine if the SUV line is added in Chattanooga. But VW plant manager Frank Fischer said last month that plant engineers and managers are still trying to bring the production costs down in Chattanooga for the new SUV.
Tennessee's initial bid made last fall to entice Volkswagen to expand its Chattanooga plant has expired. But the state's chief economic recruiter said a new package of incentives will be negotiated regardless of whether VW workers vote this week to unionize the plant.
Bill Hagerty, Tennessee's commissioner of Economic and Community Community Development, told the Associated Press the state's 90-day incentives offer made last year to VW for building a sports utility vehicle in Chattanooga recently expired.
Republican legislative leaders, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and Senate Pro Tempore Bo Watson, both of Chattanooga, said GOP legislators are less likely to approve new incentives for VW if plant workers vote to be represented by the United Auto Workers union.
Hagerty said renewed talks would likely lead to another incentive arrangement for VW, though those would be tied to available state funds amid flagging revenue collections.
"Let me be emphatically clear," Hagerty told the AP. "We have never said to Volkswagen that we would not incentivize their deal if they were union or not union."
Hagerty said it is unlikely state lawmakers would be willing to forgo future growth of the plant on anti-union grounds.
"I think economics will prevail in these discussions," he said. "That's always been my experience with the Legislature."
UAW supporters claim that the union would give workers a voice in a new works council in Chattanooga and a seat on VW's Global Works Council to help improve Chattanooga's operations.
Gary Gasteel, a UAW regional vice president who is heading organizing in the South for VW, has asked Corker and other outside groups to stay out of the voting decision by the nearly 1,500 hourly workers at the plant.
Corker, who flew home to Chattanooga from Washington D.C. this week to speak out on the VW vote, insists he is not an outsider. As mayor from 2001-2005, Corker worked to develop the 1,200 acre Enterprise South Industrial Park, which is now home to Volkswagen's North American manufacturing headquarters. In 2008, Corker also helped pitch Chattanooga as a site for the VW plant.
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