U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, UAW spar over Volkswagen in Chattanooga

photo U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
photo The VW logo is seen on the front of one of dozens of new Passats made at the Chattanooga Volkswagen assembly plant parked outside the plant.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker on Friday said top Volkswagen leaders aren't pushing United Auto Workers' efforts in Chattanooga, and he contended there's no link between plant expansion and setting up a factory works council.

But a UAW official said VW employees won't be "intimidated by outside forces," and that the German automaker has "an outstanding track record" of working with organized labor globally.

The two sides weighed into the VW issue as a Washington, D.C., group Friday officially launched a summerlong "education campaign" about the UAW and its efforts to organize the VW plant.

Corker, a Tennessee Republican who helped negotiate the incentives package to bring Volkswagen to Chattanooga, said he has talked to VW leaders numerous times and "there's not a push by the executive leadership or the board toward the UAW."

"I know for a fact that at the highest levels of VW, they're aware that if the UAW became involved in the plant, it would be a negative for the future economic growth of our state," he said.

However, Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director in Lebanon, Tenn., said the auto companies and their employees represented by the union are prospering.

The Spring Hill, Tenn., plant run by General Motors has been resurrected and now has 2,000 workers, he said. Ford Motor Co. employees at a plant in his region last year received $8,000 profit-sharing bonuses and could receive $10,000 each this year, Casteel said.

Chrysler, meanwhile, is recording the fastest-growing market share among automakers, he said.

"We're doing fine," Casteel said.

Still, Corker said the possibility that the UAW could represent workers at the VW plant has affected recruitment of other businesses to Tennessee.

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"It has already created some obstacles to us," he said. "I think the leadership at the [Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce] believes that if the UAW established a stronghold in our area, it would be a negative," he said.

The former Chattanooga mayor termed "totally and absolutely false" a claim last week by a top German VW works council official that it would block the possibility of Chattanooga landing new production until the issue of a works council is clear at the plant.

"That is a total, absolute false statement," Corker said.

He said that while the UAW touts "a new model" of employee representation involving a German-style works council, the union is run by "the exact same people who organized Spring Hill."

"I don't know how they can say they're the new UAW when the same people ... are in leadership," Corker said.

He added that he thinks the issue of union representation at the plant should be left up to its workers.

"I'm not trying to influence what the employees do," Corker said.

Casteel, meanwhile, said the decision to unionize the plant "is a matter of law," and he added the automakers where the UAW currently represents employees are doing "phenomenal."

He said that while a company such as Nissan recently announced 900 new jobs at its Smyrna, Tenn., plant, they're hiring contract workers. Casteel also disputed the contention the Japanese automaker has a works council.

Casteel said the Nissan plant may have "peer review," but it's "not anything close to the German system."

A works council, which could represent blue- and white-collar employees of a plant over issues such as pay or working conditions, is envisioned by the UAW in Chattanooga. Experts have said that under U.S. labor law, management can't set up such a group and that a union must be brought on board.

Meanwhile, the Competitive Enterprise Institute said that CEI Senior Fellow and Labor Project Director Matt Patterson has begun a campaign in Chattanooga to educate business leaders, politicians, and others about "the history, tactics and legacy" of the UAW.

In a news release, CEI said it will work with representatives from the Chattanooga Tea Party and Students for Liberty to distribute materials such as flyers and pamphlets detailing "the negative economic consequences of UAW representation."

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