UAW, opponents used vastly different strategies

photo Anti-UAW sign on digital billboard in Chattanooga area.

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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.

NASHVILLE - It's not every day that an election with just 1,338 participants winds up drawing a state governor, U.S. senator and even the president of the United States into the fray.

But maybe it's only to be expected when the election was all about the beleaguered United Auto Workers gaining a Southern toehold at a foreign auto manufacturer.

That effort failed Friday night when hourly wage workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant voted 712 to 626 against union representation.

In the months and especially in the final weeks leading up to the election, the unionization effort took on a hyperpolitical and partisan tone with overtones of hysteria normally associated with a presidential contest.

There were allegations of a back-door deal cut between Germany-based Volkswagen, which has trade union representation on its corporate board, and the UAW. Anti-union workers, joined by national anti-union groups, complained they were shut out of the Volkswagen plant while UAW representatives were allowed to make presentations directly to employees.

But local, state and national business-backed groups made up for their lack of access within the plant with a vengeance, spending at the very least tens of thousands of dollars to present anti-UAW messages on billboards, in newspapers, on radio, on the Web and at public rallies.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and others charged that a unionized VW would hurt business recruitment efforts.

In a telephone interview Saturday night, Haslam said, "Obviously I'm pleased with the results. I didn't have a clue how it would turn out. I think anybody who said they knew was guessing because it's a fairly unique situation where you have 1,600 people who decided and it's not like a typical election that I'm used to."

Still, he said, it did take on the overtones of one at times.

Other GOP politicians jumped in, led by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, of Chattanooga, whose quarrel with the UAW over the 2008 auto industry bailout became personal on both sides.

Corker said, without revealing his source, that he had inside information that the Chattanooga plant would get a second production line if workers rejected the union.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said future state incentives for Volkswagen could be at stake.

"I do not see the members of the Senate having a positive view of Volkswagen because of the manner in which this campaign has been conducted," Watson said.

Democrats and UAW officials objected loudly to what they called Watson's threat and charged that Corker may have run afoul of federal law regulating union certification elections. Watson said it wasn't a threat but simply reality in a GOP-dominated Legislature where some Republicans are ideologically opposed to incentives.

Then Democratic President Barack Obama, who was linked to the UAW in a billboard rented by an anti-union group, entered the fray. The Reuters news agency reported Friday, the last day of workers' three-day election, that the president told Democratic U.S. senators at a closed-door meeting in Maryland that Republican politicians who oppose unionization were more concerned about Volkswagen's German shareholders than U.S. workers.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and veteran state political observer, said the sense he had two weeks ago was the UAW would win the vote.

But with "outsiders dropping bombs," he said, "my guess is the UAW was not prepared for that. By the time that happened, I don't think they had a good comeback."

Some said the part of the UAW's problem was that it had been playing an insider's game until late in the struggle.

The UAW initially sought to get recognized based on the majority of workers signing cards instead of a secret-ballot vote. But anti-union workers, helped by the Washington, D.C.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, challenged that last fall.

Still, UAW officials continued talks with VW, which would like a European-style works council they believe helps production but requires a union in the U.S.

Those fighting the UAW organizing drive included the National Right to Work Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Nashville-based Beacon Institute, the Chattanooga-based Southern Momentum group of anti-union Chattanooga plant workers, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Worker Freedom, an arm of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

While the UAW largely focused on plant workers until recent days, outside groups and lawmakers reached out through advertising, statements and news conferences to shape opinions in the community.

"I just think some people got scared" about "implicit or explicit threats" regarding the consequences of a pro-union vote, said Vanderbilt's Oppenheimer.

But anti-union forces think some workers may have decided the UAW wouldn't bring them that much actual benefit.

Speaking to reporters Friday night, UAW President Bob King criticized anti-union tactics.

"It was unprecedented the amount of money that was spent here -- whether it was the Koch brothers, whether it was Corker, whether it was Grover Norquist," he said. "There were all these people who thought they could come in and threaten workers and threaten the company. To me, it's outrageous."

During the first day of three days of voting, Corker said he had been assured by sources within Volkswagen that the plant would be expanded for a sports utility vehicle if the UAW was rejected.

He stopped short of saying that the SUV line would have come even with the union, but on Saturday he again denounced what he called "a Detroit-based union" that he said would hurt economic recruitment in Chattanooga.

"They simply are after dues [from VW workers] to survive," he said.

Corker bristled at criticisms that he was an outsider, noting that he regularly talks with Volkswagen's top brass and that he worked as Chattanooga mayor and as a senator to bring the carmaker to Chattanooga.

Business Editor Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.