Union official backs off VW Nazi charge

Union official backs off VW Nazi charge

September 12th, 2009 by Mike Pare in Volkswagen

A union official backed away Friday from an analogy in an e-mail in which he had linked Volkswagen's Nazi past to the use of Hispanic workers building the automaker's Chattanooga plant.

The original statement drew condemnation from local officials, while the company defended its actions related to the plant.

"We are committed to supporting local suppliers and to working with both union and non-union companies," said VW spokesman Guenther Scherelis.

Tom Owens, director of communications for the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department in Washington, D.C., had taken the company to task in an e-mail this week under the subject line "When It Comes to Volkswagen ... Some Things Don't Change."

Mr. Owens cited VW's World War II-era association with the Nazis, saying the idea of the company came from Adolf Hitler and automaker founder Ferdinand Porsche.

He wrote that Mr. Porsche's "SS friend, Fritz Sauckel, responsible for the mass deportation of workers, summed up VW's needs in his first directive on labor: 'Foreign workers will be treated so as to exploit them to the greatest possible extent ... "'

The union official then said "fast forward to 2009." He wrote that VW is building the plant while Tennessee is in a recession and "they resort back to their dark past by making use, and exploiting, a predominantly foreign work force that some eyewitnesses say is 80 percent non-English-speaking Latino."

Tom Edd Wilson, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, called Mr. Owens' remarks "bizarre and distasteful."

April Eidson, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit group Hire Here, said there's no place in the discussion of local hiring for destructive comments.

"Such remarks are damaging and counter-productive to our community, its relationship with Volkswagen, and our collective future," she said.

State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, in whose district the VW plant is being built for a planned 2011 opening, said Mr. Owens' remarks were irresponsible. He criticized the union, saying it "wants to do for us what they did for Detroit."

Mr. Owens said Friday the analogy he made about VW was a bad one, and he regretted making it.

"It was a terrible decision on my part," he said.

Gary Watkins, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175 in Chattanooga, said the remarks were inappropriate and Mr. Owens' comments were "personal opinion."

"People above him didn't know it was being sent," he said about the e-mail. "People above him since have said that was not in the plan," Mr. Watkins said, adding that local trade union workers are on the site.

Mr. Scherelis of VW said the German government and others, including companies such as the automaker, have taken "a global leadership role in educating the world about the horrors of the past and will continue to do so."

VW'S PAST

On its Web site, VW acknowledges the use of forced labor in its production facilities during World War II. It said that during "the era of racism enforced by the National Socialist state, human beings were subjected to discriminatory treatment and physical violence."

The company said American troops put an end to military production by VW on April 11, 1945, and liberated the laborers.

"The long-hoped-for end of Nazi dictatorship meant the start of a new era for Volkswagen," a chronicle of the company's past said.

Mr. Scherelis said VW and Tennessee officials are focused on their future together. He said VW's decision to come to Chattanooga already has resulted in more than $508 million in local contracts.

Also, Mr. Scherelis cited the more than $5 million VW has invested in Tennessee schools, including in Hamilton County.

Matt Kisber, the state's commissioner of economic and community development, said VW has asked for proof of the charges related to undocumented foreign workers and other claims made by the union, and no physical evidence has been produced.

He said no local-hire provision was put in Tennessee's written plant agreement with VW -- another point of contention by the AFL-CIO -- because of Tennessee's proximity to so many other states.

"Our economy depends on cross-border activity," Mr. Kisber said. "We've been hesitant to enter into border-specific commitments. It could be a barrier to us in other projects."

Mr. Wilson said he hasn't heard anything to suggest Mr. Owens is "apologizing for the other false statements and scare tactics."

"I still think it's worth asking why a Washington-based union official feels compelled to sling mud at Chattanooga's success," he said.

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said the county "welcomes Volkswagen here" and is pleased with the $1 billion investment and 2,000 direct jobs the company is creating.

Ms. Eidson said Hire Here continues to promote the hiring of local people and companies whenever a well-trained, skilled local option is available.

"We want to demonstrate the breadth and depth of local talent and highlight the training available here in our community," she said.