Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers met Tuesday with the company's Chattanooga employees, telling them how the carmaker has arrived at the point of seeking a worker election on whether to unionize the plant.
Some see the upcoming vote as historic and others view it as apocalyptic.
A number of workers complained of VW allowing the UAW to address employees in the series of meetings, and 25 to 30 of them walked out of one session of about 600.
Also Tuesday, an anti-union group put up a couple of billboards in Chattanooga, with the aim to "warn of the UAW's threat to the Southern economy and culture" and trying to tie the union to President Barack Obama.
In addition, former Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey weighed into the fray, urging employees at a news conference to cast "no" votes in the Feb. 12-14 election to be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
Volkswagen filed for the election on Monday, and on Tuesday it had scheduled five employee-only information meetings over the union issue. The sessions concluded with a presentation by the UAW, which VW said was optional.
Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director, said he had been warned that some workers might walk out, but added, "I was totally OK with them. I've done this before."
Casteel said VW and the UAW were "transparent and above board. It seems to me that a majority of the workers took it that way. The company did a nice job."
Addressing the question about the UAW's access to employees, Casteel said, "[Volkswagen] made it real clear. The UAW is the only one up for election."
He said plans are to hand out literature to employees, and that UAW chief Bob King may come in next week closer to the election.
In an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday, King said that organizing the Chattanooga plant would be a breakthrough for the union and an opportunity for VW.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for the workers in Chattanooga," he said.
But some workers and others worry that VW is suppressing anti-union views.
Mike Burton, a VW employee who has helped set up the website no2uaw.com, said anti-union workers aren't being given an equal opportunity to speak with their fellow workers in groups.
"That's not fair," he said. "They're cheating at every corner."
Burton said much of what his group plans to do is pass out literature at the plant gate and talk with individual workers when there's opportunity inside the factory.
Matt Patterson, who heads the anti-union Center for Worker Freedom, said a pair of billboards that have gone up in Chattanooga call attention to the union's political activity as "overly partisan."
A sign on Highway 153, near the Village Volkswagen dealership, shows the words "United Auto Workers" in big letters. But the word "Auto" is crossed out and replaced by "Obama."
Another billboard on Amnicola Highway near the Police Services Center cites independent analysis about "how disastrous unionization has been for the American auto industry," Patterson said.
He also said that his center, a part of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, has set up a new website, workerfreedom.org, for people to "access information about the union and its continuing assault on the Southern manufacturing base."
Meanwhile, former Hamilton County Mayor Ramsey said if he thought the UAW would benefit employees, he'd say that's the case.
"I think the record doesn't show that," he said.
Ramsey, who helped recruit VW in 2008 as mayor and stepped down last year as deputy governor, said that unionizing the plant will hurt efforts to woo more auto suppliers to the area.
"In fact, many suppliers have already said they will not locate close to the plant if the UAW organizes it, and the further [away] they are, the higher VW's costs will be," he said. Ramsey declined to name the companies, saying that the state doesn't identify businesses it's recruiting.
He said he thinks VW employees ultimately will vote no on a union.
"They have good jobs, with good working conditions, good benefits and good pay," he said. "Why would they choose to change? Why pay dues for something you already have? What is the real benefit of a union?"
Ramsey said he wasn't speaking for Gov. Bill Haslam, but he said he believes the governor feels as he does.
Haslam has spoken out publicly against the UAW, as has U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor who heavily recruited the German automaker. Corker, who has sharply criticized the union effort in the past, declined to comment.
"During the next week and a half, while the decision is in the hands of the employees, I do not think it is appropriate for me to make additional public comment," he said in a statement.
But, Bernd Osterloh, a top VW labor leader and member of the company's powerful supervisory board, said the automaker and UAW agreeing to the election is "a good sign."
"We know from the many discussions we have had with our colleagues at the UAW that they are prepared to work together with Volkswagen in the USA to design a works council model for Chattanooga. Whether this will actually take place is now up to our colleagues in the United States. The Volkswagen Group Global Works Council would be pleased to welcome the Chattanooga plant employees to our organization as soon as possible," he said.
VW has a works council at nearly every major plant it operates across the globe. In it, both blue- and white-collar employees can meet to discuss issues such as safety, hours and training. VW has said that a union is needed at the plant for a works council to be set up under U.S. labor law.
The UAW has been trying to organize an auto plant in the South for years, including Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn., but has been unsuccessful so far. Observers believe that organizing VW's Chattanooga plant would serve as a stepping stone to doing so at other assembly plants in the South.
Casteel said the number of multiple meetings on Tuesday at the Chattanooga plant was aimed at trying to "touch everybody." The hourly workers who are slated to vote in the election will number a little more than 1,500, he said. About 2,700 people work at the factory. Those not slated to vote are in management or exempt for some other reason.
"[Volkswagen] is trying to be as transparent as they can be," Casteel said. "It shows a spirit of collaboration and a spirit of working together."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.