Volkswagen labor rep hits Chattanooga vote (with videos)

Volkswagen labor rep hits Chattanooga vote (with videos)

February 20th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Volkswagen's top labor representative threatened Wednesday to try to block more investments by the car maker in the South if its workers aren't unionized, though a Chattanooga anti-United Auto Workers group termed it "spoiled grapes."

Bernd Osterloh, a member of VW's powerful supervisory board and head of the automaker's works council in Germany, said he could "imagine fairly well that another VW factory in the United States, provided that one more should still be set up there, does not necessarily have to be assigned to the South again."

"If co-determination isn't guaranteed in the first place, we as workers will hardly be able to vote in favor" of potentially building another plant in the South, said Osterloh, according to Reuters.

The results of an election at VW's Chattanooga plant on Friday showed that employees rejected representation by the UAW by a vote of 712 to 626, or 53 percent to 47 percent.

VW has said it wants to set up a works council in Chattanooga and a union is needed to do so under U.S. labor law. The UAW said it wanted to establish a new U.S. standard of how labor and management can work together.

Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney for the anti-UAW group Southern Momentum, said he's disappointed by Osterloh's statements.

Martin Winterkorn, CEO of German carmaker Volkswagen AG, right, listens to Bernd Osterloh, works council chairman of Volkswagen, during a news conference after a meeting of the supervisory board in the headquarter of the company in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

"I think it's spoiled grapes. They said it was up to the workers," he said. "They profess to want to let the workers decide, but they're clearly disappointed and want to try to punish the workers potentially for the decision they made."

Nicely said Osterloh's comments sound like "an emotional response. Hopefully, Germany can maintain the perspective on this."

Osterloh also complained in his remarks, first reported by the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, that "the conservatives stirred up massive anti-union sentiments" during the election.

Several high-ranking political leaders in Tennessee, including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, weighed into the fray last week, drawing criticism by the UAW.

Nicely said statements made by some Republican leaders last week weren't anti-union, but rather anti-UAW.

Todd Womack, Corker's chief of staff, said the senator has stated on numerous occasions that he's supportive of the works council concept.

"Friday's vote was the best possible decision for our community and for the great workers at the plant, but obviously tensions are high following an outcome some did not expect. The senator continues to be involved in conversations with Volkswagen and remains comfortable that things will work out," Womack said.

VW chief Martin Winterkorn said at the Detroit auto show last month that a new seven-passenger sport utility vehicle will go on sale in the U.S. in 2016. Production of the new model will either be in Chattanooga or at a plant in Mexico, according to VW.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Wednesday the city is working with VW related to improving road and rail infrastructure near the Enterprise South industrial park plant.

"They've got to get parts in and out, employees to and from the plant and vehicles to the market," he said.

Berke said the city is spending a lot of time listening to VW's needs and figuring out a way to help the automaker, though he wasn't specific about projects.

VW has said Chattanooga is the front runner to produce the SUV, and an announcement about the site is expected to be made soon.

Also Wednesday, Bill Hagerty, the chief economic development official in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Cabinet, said that a megasite outside of Memphis would be ideally suited for a new auto assembly plant -- even if its workers are represented by the UAW, the Associated Press reported.

Haslam, Corker and fellow Republicans in the state Legislature argued that a UAW win would have hurt the region's ability to attract suppliers and other future business to the state.

Hagerty said the state is "ready and willing to market the site to any major company that's interested in Tennessee. If you go through and look at the projects we've navigated and worked through since we've been in, we've had a mix of union and non-union employers."

Business editor Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

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