Opinions still differ on what UAW Volkswagen defeat means for Chattanooga

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Thrust into the national spotlight, Chattanooga may gain - and lose - from the attention garnered by the Volkswagen plant's United Auto Workers vote, observers say.

"I don't believe [all] publicity is good publicity," said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. "But our job is to do the best we can with the circumstances we have."

With plant workers voting down UAW efforts to organize the factory, some see that as a green light to wooing more business to the area, particularly suppliers to VW. However, others worry that VW officials, especially in Germany, were turned off by what they saw as outside influence into the company's initiative to set up a works council labor board similar to what it has in nearly all its plants globally.

Some commentators have suggested that race and Southern culture were factors in the vote against unionization. Regardless, others termed the election the most important one that will take place in the U.S. in 2014.

And, the election issue isn't resolved. On Friday, the UAW filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that politicians and outside groups interfered with the vote.

Berke said Chattanooga is used to a lot of attention with its revitalized downtown and the gig network. He doesn't expect business recruitment to be helped or hurt in the wake of the attention generated by the UAW defeat.

Companies come to Chattanooga or expand due to quality of life, the low cost of doing business and the way the city welcomes firms, Berke said.

"Those are the qualities that businesses continue to tell me about whether they will relocate here," he said. "I don't see the recent publicity as more than a blip on the screen."

Tim Spires, who heads the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, said Tennessee has seen high job growth in the sector, citing its workforce and other factors.

"That hasn't changed, and I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to use those strengths to continue growth," he said.

But state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, was highly critical of efforts by some Republican legislators who said future economic development incentives for VW were at risk should workers approve the union.

"Volkswagen is an international company. We're truly blessed to have it," she said. "I hope [relations with VW] aren't severed. I think we'll be able to mend any relationship problems."

VW's top labor representative lashed out last week in the aftermath of the election. Bernd Osterloh, president of VW's global works council, said the future of new plants in the South may be affected by the decision.

"If co-determination isn't guaranteed in the first place, we as workers will hardly be able to vote in favor" of potentially building another plant in the South, he was quoted as saying by Reuters.

State House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said, "Words have consequences, and these types of threats [by Republicans] could have a ruinous effect on our state's relationships with not just Volkswagen, but all employers."

Republicans stuck to what they were saying in the runup to the vote.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who weighed into the election by saying that VW would make a new product in Chattanooga should workers reject the UAW, said that having the union at the plant would have hurt economic development efforts in the area.

"To the UAW, it was about money," he said. "To us, it's about our community."

Last week, amid the analysis of the election, a comment about race and unions on msnbc touched off debate.

Fox News reported that Timothy Noah, a contributing writer for msnbc, suggested that race was a factor in the vote against unionization by the Chattanooga workers.

"The opposition, I gather, portrayed this as a kind of Northern invasion, a re-fighting of the Civil War. Apparently there are not a lot of black employees in this particular plant, and so that kind of -- waving the Confederate flag -- was an effective strategy," said Noah.

But, John Raudabaugh, a former National Labor Relations Board member who has lived in Atlanta, termed the effort to try to link the election and race "disgusting ... outrageous and crude."

Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for Cars.com, said the race and Southern anti-union culture issues appear to be speculation.

"I'm sure there's some history there ... but that's not the reason the vote turned out why it did," he said.

As to whether there will need to be some fence-mending with VW, Toprak said that at the end of the day, it's about business.

"Business is business and the show must go on," he said.

Toprak said VW needs to refocus on selling more vehicles in the U.S. and growing sales again.

"That's the one thing that's glaring to me," he said. "What is VW doing to sell more cars? Everything [else] is secondary to me."

Whatever ultimately comes as a result of the Feb. 12-14 balloting, columnist George Will wrote in the Washington Post last week that the Chattanooga vote was a key one.

"This year's most important election will not occur in November, when more than 90 million votes will be cast for governors and national legislators. The most important election, crucial to an entire region's economic well-being and to the balance of the nation's political competition, has already occurred," Will wrote.

He termed the vote "a shattering defeat for the UAW, for organized labor generally and for liberalism nationally. It was a commensurate victory for entrepreneurial federalism."

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

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