Gerber: Media camps out for VW union vote

Gerber: Media camps out for VW union vote

February 9th, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga is at the center of attention once again.

This time, it's not for our great outdoors living or our bad allergies or our high diabetes rates.

A story unfolding at the Volkswagen plant has drawn international journalists to the city. Employees at the plant are voting this week on whether to unionize through the United Automobile Workers and big media companies -- The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Businessweek, Fortune and NPR, not to mention European newspapers and trade publications -- have covered the story. All eyes, it appears, are focused on the Scenic City.

Reporters and analysts are observing, dissecting and debating the vote, which is considered by many a bellwether moment -- a referendum on whether organized labor can gain a foothold in the right-to-work Southern states and, in a way, a referendum on the UAW's viability.

The United Auto Workers is nowhere near the powerhouse it once was. Membership has slipped from 1.5 million in the late 1970s to fewer than 400,000 today. But the union has a chance to add members through VW.

For three days this week, more than 1,500 hourly VW employees will decide whether to join the UAW, the first unionization vote by the UAW of plant not run by one of Detroit's Big Three -- General Motors, Ford, Chrysler -- in more than a dozen years. If the plan is approved, VW would be the first Southern, foreign-owned auto plant to do so.

A union win could energize other unionization efforts in the region -- and may have consequences for Nissan, Mercedes and BMW, all of whom have plants in the South.

But the vote isn't getting attention just because of its potential business or political impact. It's also because of how it came about.

Typically, companies don't exactly jump up and down when unionization attempts occur, and they sure don't offer to arrange union votes -- at least not most American companies. But in VW's case, the company petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold the vote.

VW officials also took the rare step of allowing the UAW to campaign to workers inside the plant. But they refused a request by anti-union workers to speak to employees.

VW officials have said they're committed to neutrality, but the Detroit Free Press quoted an academic as saying Volkswagen's neutrality gives the UAW a significant edge.

"If the UAW is successful, the union will take that momentum to Nissan and Mercedes and others," Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor, told the Michigan newspaper.

Anti-union workers have complained that they're not getting a fair shot at circulating their message, and UAW folks have complained of right-wing sabotage.

While VW has remained neutral, others have stepped in with a loud-and-clear anti-union message.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Claude Ramsey, who is both a former Hamilton County mayor and a former deputy governor, have all expressed opposition. They and other opponents believe a unionized VW will make if difficult for Tennessee to recruit other plants.

Whatever the outcome, the Times Free Press will follow the story -- both the vote and whatever long-term imprint it may leave. Reporter Mike Pare, who covers VW and the auto industry, will be there every step of the way, bringing you the news as it unfolds.

Pare, a veteran reporter, is known for his even-handed and comprehensive coverage of controversial issues, and this certainly qualifies. He has covered the VW story since before the company picked Chattanooga as the site of its plant. Over the years, he's written hundreds of stories about VW. You can find many of them at timesfreepress.com/uaw, along with photos of the plant from start to finish.

This week, you can follow him in print and on the website as he reports on a Chattanooga story that has worldwide implications.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Times Free Press. Contact her atagerber@timesfreepress.com.