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The Chattanooga Volkswagen plant's former head of manufacturing on Thursday hit the idea of unionizing the factory, saying the United Auto Workers would take employees "out of the picture."
"I'm not sure what the union can improve," said Don Jackson, who worked at the massive factory for four years before retiring last year.
Jackson, with 34 years in manufacturing with VW and Toyota, worried about what he termed "old union practices based on intimidation and threats."
"A third party drives a wedge between management and employees," Jackson told more than 150 people who showed up at the forum at the Embassy Suites near Hamilton Place mall.
The forum was put on by Citizens for Free Markets, a group concerned about the UAW's efforts to organize VW's Chattanooga plant.
UAW officials said Thursday they intentionally stayed away from the meeting because they didn't want any trouble.
However, a couple of top UAW officials at Southern auto plants were made available for interviews earlier and said VW employees would benefit from union representation.
Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862 in Louisville, Ky., where there are two Ford Motor plants, said some people "don't want [workers] to have a voice."
He cited lots of investment and new jobs at the Louisville plants, which has permitted workers to give back to that community in a variety of charitable ways.
"We've got a working model," he said. "It could be replicated in Chattanooga."
But, Charles Van Eaton, a retired labor economist, recalled at the forum the failure of VW's first auto assembly plant in Pennsylvania. That plant, which lasted 10 years and closed in 1988, "totally failed. The UAW represented the workers," he said.
Van Eaton said the UAW staged a wildcat strike six months after that plant opened for an additional 66 cents per hour in wages for workers.
He also said that union work rules will require hiring more people to produce cars than are needed, which hurts a company's ability to compete.
Van Eaton also talked about the German-style works councils which VW has at its other major plants worldwide. Under U.S. labor law, a union such as the UAW would be needed for the formation of a works council, which would represent workers in such areas as working conditions and pay.
Van Eaton said it appears that global VW works council officials have "sent a threat in the air" to push approval of such a body at the Chattanooga plant.
Matt Patterson, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center For Economic Freedom and who opposes the works council idea and the UAW, said a works council may be unworkable under U.S. labor law.
He added that the UAW has lost a lot of members nationally and needs to unionize the plants of foreign automakers such as VW.
"There's no question the UAW needs Chattanooga. The question is does Chattanooga need the UAW," Patterson said.
Still, the chairman of the UAW Local 1853 at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., said that for employees, belonging to a union is "the cheapest insurance you ever get."
"Our goal, our objective is to represent people in workplaces so they can support their families," said Mike Herron.
Reaction at the forum was mixed.
Janet Green, of Hixson, who works at the VW plant, said there are a lot of employees who lean toward a works council but not the UAW.
Cain Collison of Chattanooga said the speakers at the forum put out "a lot of dots but the dots were not connected."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.