'Whole world is watching' Chattanooga VW workers begin historic UAW vote (with video)

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photo United Auto Workers, UAW, logo

In what some call the most significant American labor election in decades, Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant employees are slated to start casting ballots today in a vote that could dramatically shift the union playing field in the region.

"I know the whole world is watching," said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who helped woo VW and on Tuesday urged plant employees to vote against aligning with the United Auto Workers. "Why would they want this outside force?"

Gary Watkins, the Chattanooga Area Labor Council president, likened the election to the civil rights struggles in the South a half-century ago.

"It's a huge election coming at a historic time," he said. "This will be looked back in time as either one of the greatest failures or one of the biggest victories for working people."

Voting for the nearly 1,500 workers in the three-day election at the plant was slated to start at 6 a.m. today, according to an agreement filed with the National Labor Relations Board, which is supervising the process.

However, snow forecast for today could play a factor. A snowstorm last month in the region prompted VW to cancel its first shift of workers, citing supply chain problems.

If the election is postponed or canceled, the NLRB regional director, at his or her discretion, may reschedule the date, time and place of the election, the agreement said.

Voting is to end Friday at 8:30 p.m., and a ballot count is to start immediately with a tally made available to the parties. However, it's uncertain if the results will be made public at that time, depending on whether any challenges are filed related to the election.

The UAW has said it will work with VW to set up a works council labor board designed to establish a new standard for labor-management relations in the U.S. VW has indicated it wants to work with the union to craft the first works council at a U.S. auto plant.

For the UAW, a "for" vote would permit the union to gain a foray into a foreign-owned auto factory in the South for the first time. The UAW sees cracking the South as a key to its survival, given that membership has plunged from 1.5 million in 1979 to about 390,000 active members.

photo U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., meets with members of the media in the board room of the EPB Building on Tuesday.

Corker last week indicated he planned not to comment on the election until it was over, but said the UAW was using his name and words to stifle other voices.

In a news conference, he termed the UAW "a Detroit-based organization" and the largest shareholder of General Motors whose key to survival is to organize plants in the South.

"When UAW organizers look at VW employees, they see dues -- money into their coffers," Corker said.

He said the UAW discussion already is having a dampening impact on wooing new business to Tennessee. If the UAW organizes the VW plant, it will hurt the standard of living of people in the state, Corker said.

"We're concerned about the impact," he said. "Look at Detroit."

Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director, said in a statement it's "sad that when workers exercise their legal right to form a union some Tennessee politicians are threatening the economic well-being of communities and businesses just because workers want to have a voice in the future of Volkswagen in Chattanooga."

Casteel asked that if VW workers and management can work together on the issue, why are some Tennessee politicians "so eager to derail that process with the help of special interests from outside Tennessee and deny workers the right to participate in decisions that affect their future?"

photo Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke

Corker said he's not against a works council at the plant, and he noted that factory workers could form their own union if they wished.

"VW would be open to employees forming their own union," Corker said.

VW worker and UAW supporter John Wright said he's glad to see the vote come about and if approved, they'll go into collective bargaining and "have a voice in the expansion [of the plant] in Chattanooga."

Wright said VW has "totally been neutral. The only drama is outside the plant. I think it's kind of outrageous that we have all of these outside groups coming in from Washington, D.C., and other areas trying to influence both our politicians and our local employees into saying no to any type of unionization."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Tuesday that he will never put politics above jobs.

"Whichever side of the union debate you are on, the jobs brought here by the second line would be good for everyone, whether Republican, Democratic, or independent," he said. "Volkswagen has brought living wage jobs here, employing Chattanoogans and building our middle class. There's nothing more American than that."

photo United Auto Worker's President Bob King speaks at the annual Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminar near Traverse City, Mich., in this file photo.

Justin King, who works on VW's finish line team and supports the union, said one of his issues is with anti-UAW billboards and outside groups. He said they have operated on innuendo and propaganda, and put up the suggestive billboards that they then don't back up with actual data.

However, Mike Jarvis, a body shop team leader who does not support the union, said the outsider is the UAW.

"We don't need any outside influences," he said.

Corker said UAW chief Bob King outmaneuvered the management side of the VW supervisory board to get to the point the union is today in Chattanooga.

"King wined and dined the board," he said, adding that the panel is almost evenly split between management and labor representation.

Corker said local VW management has been "muzzled" by the company's corporate leaders. If local management could present its case, he said, the anti-UAW voters would win by a large margin.

The senator also said he thinks VW wants to bring a potential new sport utility vehicle to Chattanooga rather than Mexico.

"I know for a fact Chattanooga is their first choice," he said.

VW has said Chattanooga is the frontrunner to make a new SUV, but it's competing with Mexico.

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

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

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