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A union-fed culture of animosity between companies and workers helped put Detroit on track to its current ills, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Friday.
That's why he and some others are worried about a United Auto Workers presence at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, the Tennessee Republican said.
But, blaming the UAW for what happened in Detroit is "purely ideological," a professor at Cornell University and the director of its Worker Institute said.
"It's a bias against unions," said Lowell Turner, a professor of international and comparative labor. "There's not a scientific basis for that at all. There's no basis in fact for that at all."
UAW is pushing to organize workers at the city's VW plant. Earlier this year, the automaker's board member in charge of human resources said VW is in talks with the union about setting up a German-style works council.
This week, Detroit became the biggest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, hurt by a decline in population and auto manufacturing.
Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, said in a phone interview there's "no doubt the UAW had an increasingly negative effect" on Detroit.
"It's really sad," he said. "Anyone who visits the city can see the devastating effects. At one time it was a booming city. The anti-business climate continued to build on itself over time. That kept any business from wanting to locate there."
Corker recalled a 2011 dinner with then-Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen during the annual auto show at a Detroit hotel. He said it was after 9:30 p.m. and the maitre d' had to ask the union steward if it was OK for staff to serve the group.
"The hotel was doing great. Employees were receiving a lot of tips. It was literally one of the biggest nights of the year," Corker said. "I don't think people fully appreciate the effect the UAW has created in the city."
However, Detroit's problems are caused by decades of bad management and corruption, Turner countered. Blaming the UAW is "ludicrous," he said.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler got themselves into serious trouble by offering badly designed vehicles, he said.
"They let the Japanese come in and take over ... the small market," Turner said. The companies also kept building profitable large sport utility vehicles, and were caught off guard when gas prices rose, the professor said.
Auto company officials moved plants outside Detroit's city limits, which forced UAW workers to shift as well, he added.
Turner said he doesn't see the problems that plagued Detroit's automakers happening in Chattanooga should the UAW organize the plant.
"Volkswagen is a good company, and it didn't make those mistakes" such as were carried out by the Detroit Three, he said.
While the UAW has operated in Tennessee for years at GM's Spring Hill plant, Corker said organizing the Chattanooga factory would indicate that the UAW has "momentum" in the state.
Just the discussion of a union has hurt business recruitment in Tennessee, Corker asserted.
Turner, meanwhile, said that Volkswagen plants all over the world operate with unions, which fit into the VW model of co-determination.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Friday he won't have any input on negotiations about a union at the Chattanooga plant.
"The union issue is one between Volkswagen and its employees," he said. "Federal law says it has to do with them and their employees. My focus is purely on being a great partner to Volkswagen."
Staff writer Joy Lukachick contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Mike Pare at mpare@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6318.