Haslam: Union not part of VW talks; governor very hopeful about SUV

Haslam: Union not part of VW talks; governor very hopeful about SUV

June 5th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Gov. Bill Haslam discusses legislation during a press conference at the state Capitol in Nashville in this June 3, 2014, image.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday that the union issue isn't part of talks the state is having with Volks-wagen to attract a new sport utility vehicle to the carmaker's Chattanooga assembly plant.

"We're not discussing that issue at all," he said. "It's definitely not part of our discussions."

Haslam said in Chattanooga that he's "very hopeful" about negotiations with VW to grow its factory production in the city.

"We're having conversations that both sides are very engaged in and are very substantive," he said.

The governor made his remarks after speaking at Chattanooga State Community College about the new Tennessee Promise legislation that pledges free tuition to high school graduates at the state's community colleges and technical schools.

He disputed a comment by a VW global works council official who said Monday that conservatives and political leaders had "stolen" the February election in which the United Auto Workers lost an organizing vote at the Chattanooga plant.

"Certainly, I don't know how it was stolen," Haslam said. "Everybody had the right to vote."

The Republican governor said the UAW had more access to the workers at the plant "than anyone else did."

Frank Patta, general secretary of the works council group, also told the UAW convention in Detroit that "we lost one battle, but we did not lose the entire fight. ... I promise we will go on. We want a works council, an American works council. This is our joint vision. This is our dream."

Haslam said that while the UAW has indicated it wants another vote in Chattanooga, "when that happens, it happens. There will be a vote and workers will get to decide just like they did last time."

He said that UAW members voted Tuesday to raise dues by 25 percent.

"I'd think that would be a source of concern if I was thinking about a union in the plant," Haslam said.

In April, a leaked state offer sheet to VW made before the February election showed that nearly $300 million in incentives would be provided by Tennessee to woo the SUV line to Chattanooga along with 1,350 jobs.

The offer sheet, first reported by Nashville TV station WTVF, said the incentives were contingent on VW discussions about setting up a works council at the plant being concluded to the "satisfaction" of the state. Haslam later said the incentives were never tied to an outcome of the UAW vote, and that the package wasn't used as leverage against plant workers.

The governor said Wednesday the state is in a battle with Mexico over incentives to attract the new SUV to Chattanooga that VW sees as a linchpin to improving its U.S. sales, which have fallen for 14 consecutive months.

"There are a lot of suppliers there," he said about Mexico, where VW already has a huge assembly plant and is building another to assemble Audi SUVs. "We know who and what we're competing with."

VW officials have termed Chattanooga the front-runner to land the midsize SUV.

Haslam said Chattanooga State has partnered with VW and fellow German company Wacker, which is building a polysilicon plant in Bradley County. He cited the importance of a trained workforce in the state.

"We need skilled workers," he said. "A lot of jobs are still unfilled."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said there won't be more important legislation he'll see in his political career than Tennessee Promise, adding that he handled the bill on the House floor himself.

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