UAW vote at Chattanooga VW plant drawn along partisan lines

photo State Rep. Gerald McCormick, left, and state Sen. Bo Watson make comments on the UAW issue to a sparse crowd Monday in the auditorium at the state office building on McCallie Avenue.

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A conservative anti-tax group labels the union trying to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga as the "United Obama Workers," and warns that a union victory this week by the United Auto Workers could sow the seeds of a more liberal, Democrat-leaning Tennessee.

Union supporters counter that "right-wing Republicans" are trying to keep the UAW out of the South for political gain.

On the eve of the biggest union election in Chattanooga in a generation, the battle lines are being drawn for many along partisan lines. As hourly workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant prepare to decide this week whether to be represented by the UAW union, members of the Tennessee General Assembly split Monday between Republicans opposed to the UAW and Democrats in favor of the Detroit-based union.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said GOP concerns about the UAW are primarily based upon fears that the union will scare away business prospects from Tennessee and hurt the ability of VW to lure needed suppliers to the region for further plant expansions.

"The UAW is obviously going to be anti-Republican because this is a far-left, radical union," McCormick said after a news conference Monday along with his local Republican legislative colleagues. "But that is secondary to our economic concerns that the presence of UAW here will make it more difficult to bring investment into our area and will hurt job creation in Chattanooga."

McCormick said the UAW could bring more work stoppages at auto plants in the state if workers decide to strike and raise the costs of doing business for companies that come under UAW contracts and work rules.

State Sen. Bo Watson, the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber in Nashville, urged VW workers to reject the UAW unionization bid and warned that a union presence at Volkswagen would make it harder to gain Legislative approval for more financial incentives for Volkswagen expansions.

Tennessee granted a record $573 million of incentives to Volkswagen to build its Chattanooga assembly plant in 2008 and state and local officials have talked about additional incentives to encourage the car maker to add a sports utility vehicle line in Chattanooga.

UAW spurs political fight

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, on Monday questioned what he called "unprecedented" Republican interference with a union election at Volkswagen.

State Rep. Shery Jones, D-Nashville, said she was "appalled by Republicans" who she said are "issuing threats and using intimidation" to discourage workers from voting for the union.

"It's strictly Republican politics," she said. "They don't like unions and they are going to do everything they can do to block unions in our state."

Gary Watkins, president of the Chattanooga Area Labor Council, said he worries that the GOP super majority in Nashville "has become a Republican dictatorship" that is working to undermine organized labor throughout the state.

UAW money flow to Democrats

Democrats have reason to want more UAW presence in Tennessee since the union has been a stalwart supporter of Democratic candidates.

The UAW's Political Action Committee in the last election cycle in 2012 donated $1.4 million to more than 200 Democratic candidates in the U.S. House and gave $153,100 in contributions to 27 Democrats in U.S. Senate races. UAW gave only $1,000 to Republicans in 2012.

Gary Moore, president of the AFL-CIO in Tennessee, said unions give to Democrats because they support unions and their causes.

"We don't look at the D or the R behind a candidate's name, but we do look at who supports us and that is usually Democrats," said Moore, a former Democratic legislator himself in the Tennessee General Assembly.

photo Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke

Grover Norquist's anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform, created an offshoot known as the Center for Worker Freedom to help fight the UAW campaign. Matt Patterson, who is heading the campaign, said one of the reasons for conservatives to fight against unions is that organized labor works to support liberal causes and candidates "and that could change the climate of Tennessee over time."

Such change is unlikely in the near term, according to Vanderbilt Political Scientist John Geer.

"The short-term impact of this union election probably won't be much on the political environment, but it could begin to make a difference over time, especially if unions become more successful in organizing other businesses," Geer said.

While the partisan battles play out, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Monday he is staying focused on helping Volkswagen succeed and expand, irrespective of how this week's union election is decided. Berke served as a Democrat in the state Senate, but the mayor's office is non-partisan.

"From the city's perspective, my No. 1 goal is to bring jobs to the area and that's what I'm staying focused upon," Berke said. "Regardless of how the vote and decisions turn out, we're going to do everything we can to bring more job opportunities to Chattanooga."

Berke said the city stands ready to offer more incentives, as needed, to encourage Volkswagen to expand its plant -- with or without the UAW.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.