Tennessee must act quickly on Volkswagen incentives; Haslam says state waiting on VW to restart talks

Tennessee must act quickly on Volkswagen incentives; Haslam says state waiting on VW to restart talks

April 3rd, 2014 by Mike Pare and Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Nashville in this March 25, 2014, photo.

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a Tennessee Chamber...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - As Tennessee's legislative session winds down in coming weeks, time also may be running out for the General Assembly to approve an incentive package to spur more production at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant.

Gov. Bill Haslam said in an interview Wednesday the state is waiting for VW to restart incentive talks after plant workers last month rejected an organizing effort by the United Auto Workers. The union has appealed the vote and the National Labor Relations Board has a hearing set for April 21.

Asked if the incentives might have to wait until next year, Haslam said, "We'll have to wait and see when [VW officials] come back to us, so I don't know enough to answer that question."

The governor said the state has no offer to VW on the table now.

The automaker had no comment Wednesday.

While the Legislature could adjourn in a few weeks, that wouldn't preclude it from being called back into session later. Or, there's a possibility the agreement could be OK'd at the administrative level contingent on approval by the Legislature.

But, meanwhile, the UAW has asked to delay the hearing after leaked state documents showed what the union said was collusion among third-party groups and Tennessee Republican politicians to interfere in the plant vote.

One document, first reported by WTVF-TV in Nashville, said the state last year offered VW about $300 million in incentives to attract a sport utility vehicle assembly line with 1,350 new production and headquarters jobs.

The offer sheet 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 and other Tennessee Republican lawmakers have sharply criticized potential UAW recognition at the factory.

In the interview, Haslam said that including the "satisfaction" sentence wasn't a threat but "just a statement of reality."

"Remember this also, any incentive deal that we do has to be approved by the Legislature," he said. "And we had that discussion with them all along, that it was going to be much, much more difficult if the union vote happened."

The governor said the state never told VW that "it's going to be this number if you have a union and this number if you don't." He said that had the UAW won the election, "it's not like we were going to discontinue discussions with them."

Haslam said VW didn't reject last year's incentive offer.

"We had had an offer out there for a lot longer than what is typical, and one of the things we were saying was, 'We need an answer here. We've got a developing budget situation, we've got a Legislature that needs to approve this. We need to drive this to a conclusion,'" Haslam said.

The state said the offer was taken off the table in January before the UAW vote was called.

"In the end what we finally said is we need to talk to somebody who can speak finally for the company. I said we're ready to have those conversations, and they said we'll get back to you at the appropriate time. And that time hasn't happened yet," the governor said.

The UAW, in its filing, asked the NLRB to conduct a full evidentiary hearing on the conduct of anti-union groups Southern Momentum and the National Right to Work Foundation. Both groups want to intervene in the appeal.

The filing said that one of the leaked documents is an email chain dated Feb. 11, the day before plant voting started, from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's chief of staff, Todd Womack, to Bill Hagerty, the state's commissioner of economic development.

It said that others in the email chain are:

• Maury Nicely, a lawyer for Southern Momentum

• Will Alexander, the son of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Hagerty's chief of staff

• Ron Harr, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive

• Don Jackson, the plant's former president of manufacturing who spoke out against the UAW

• Tim Spires, who heads the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers

• Anti-union consultants Jim Gray and Peter List.

"The email chain concerns various anti-union messaging ... [and] is further evidence that supports the UAW's allegation of coordination by government officials and Southern Momentum regarding pre-election conduct ...," the union's lawyers said.

J.Ed. Marston, a Chattanooga Chamber spokesman, said Wednesday that "As an organization, the Chamber was not involved."

Womack said "As we do with any number of important issues that arise around the state, we had numerous conversations related to Volkswagen with stakeholders at multiple levels.

"As Sen. Corker said it would, the UAW's unfortunate decision to ignore the workers' vote and file an objection with the NLRB has slowed down Volkswagen's final discussions on the new SUV line."

Spires could not be reached for comment.

The UAW's filing also cited a Feb. 2 cellphone conversation overheard by UAW member Sandra Haasis at the Atlanta airport in which she heard National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation lawyer Glenn Taubman "discussing a plan for day-to-day messaging regarding the VW campaign."

Taubman specifically referred to his having plans to have discussions with Spires, as well as "Peter" and "Don" concerning the messaging, according to the filing.

"In other words, rather than serving merely as counsel, the Right to Work Foundation was an active participant in the campaign that is the subject of the UAW's objections," the filing said.

VW has said it wants to get a new SUV on dealer showrooms in 2016. Chattanooga is competing with VW operations in Mexico for assembly, but the Tennessee plant is seen as the front-runner.

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

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