Sen. Bo Watson slams VW over labor policies, UAW recognition

Sen. Bo Watson slams VW over labor policies, UAW recognition

March 18th, 2015 by Andy Sher in Business Around the Region

Sen. Bo Watson listens to Rep. Mike Carter during the Times Free Press sponsored Legislative Roundtable Tuesday at the newspaper.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

VW is a magnet for organized labor, intentionally."
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

NASHVILLE -- Top Volkswagen officials came under harsh questioning Tuesday from a Chattanooga Republican lawmaker who charged that the German auto manufacturer is a "magnet for organized labor, intentionally."

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the state Economic and Community Development's budget, which includes $165.8 million in proposed state incentives to the company, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, repeatedly drilled David Geanacopoulos, Volkswagen America's general counsel, about its labor policies.

Watson said the incentives for Volkswagen "will give Southeast Tennessee a big foothold in the automotive industry particularly in research and development and ... development of a new line of VW vehicles" -- a planned SUV.

"However, Mr. Chairman and committee members," Watson said, "VW is a magnet for organized labor, intentionally."

He questioned Geanacopoulos over continued United Auto Workers' efforts to represent workers, which failed last year in a close vote of plant employees. Opposition was led by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and other elected GOP officials, including Watson.

Watson specifically zeroed in on news accounts of comments made last year at a national UAW convention by Frank Patta, vice chairman of VW's European and Global Group Works Council, which represents workers worldwide.

The lawmaker read from news accounts in which Patta said VW's works council is a model that can only help workers.

"We did not lose the fight. I promise you we will go on," Watson read from Patta's comments. "Our dream is stronger than the resistance of our enemies. We will only rest once our colleagues in Tennessee have the UAW and co-determination. Our works council model will spread to the entire South and hopefully far beyond Tennessee. ... This is our dream."

Watson, in whose district VW's plant sits, said the company's investment in Chattanooga has "been nothing but transformational. There's no doubt about that" with the entire area impacted "mostly from the positive." But he cautioned fellow committee members that transformation "can also involve other aspects."

The lawmaker questioned Geanocoupolis over the company's granting of limited recognition to the union with regular meetings by UAW with VW officials. And he cited concerns over comments made by a Chattanooga-based UAW official that the union is working to solidify its relationship with VW.

Geanocoupolis told Watson that the works council is an "independent organization" and a body established by German law. "So it doesn't reflect the views of the management of the company. Rather, it reflects the views of the Work Council itself, that elected representative body within the company."

Geanocoupolis said "we believe it is a question for our employees to decide. We have actually established a new policy in the company that allows us to have conversations with any labor organization that has support from our workforce. Not about collective bargaining. It's not about union representation."

He noted that under VW's community engagement policy, the company also granted limited recognition to an anti-UAW group calling itself the American Council of Employees (ACE). Both the UAW and ACE meet with company officials to "exchange ideas," Geanocoupolis said. "And that's the extent of it. We have this obligation to be engaged with our employees and the groups that represent them and it's embodied in this new policy which is open and transparent."

Replied Watson: "I'm not sure that really answers the question of whether there's a partnership or not."

In the end, the Commerce Committee approved the incentive grant as part of the Economic and Community Development Department's budget without Watson's support.

The vote was 8-0 with Watson abstaining. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who has also been critical of UAW, voted yes.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.