Volkswagen labor battle seen as pivotal for the South

photo A worker fixes a logo to a Volkswagen car.

Wall Street Journal editorial board member Steve Moore railed against the United Auto Workers union's attempt to organize in Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant Wednesday night.

"It's like inserting a cancer cell into a body," he said. "That one cancer cell is going to multiply and kill the body. It's a disruptive influence."

The outspoken conservative addressed about 50 Chattanooga business people and civic leaders at Wednesday night's event, which was sponsored by The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a nonprofit lobbying group that aims to advance free market policy in the state.

Moore argued that auto manufacturers have fled union-dominated states during the last 25 years to set up shop in less-unionized states, often in the South. And he said organizing a union at Volkswagen could jeopardize that shift.

"America is not losing auto jobs," he said. "Michigan, Ohio and Indiana are losing auto jobs. I think that, over time, if the UAW is approved, there's a real risk of the plant leaving [Chattanooga]."

But UAW President Bob King told the Times Free Press last week that the majority of Volkswagen workers have signed cards that support the union, which promises to protect workers' safety, wages and workplace rights. The Chattanooga assembly plant is the only major Volkswagen facility that is not unionized.

While Volkswagen could immediately accept and recognize the cards, some advocates have called for a secret ballot election so that the 2,000 workers at the factory could vote to authorize UAW to represent them.

King said he's not opposed to a secret ballot election, but still favors a card-check as the quickest way to recognize the union.

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, said the impact of the decision for or against unionization at Volkswagen will echo across the state and even the nation.

"Especially because Tennessee is becoming an automotive manufacturing state, I think the decision made here will certainly set a precedent one way or another in terms of whether we continue to accelerate in the auto industry, or whether we will be derailed," he said.

Michigan UAW member Terry Bowman also warned against UAW's tactics, and said that in his experience, UAW's focus on collective bargaining actually harms individual worker productivity. He said unionized workplaces cater to the "lowest common denominator," instead of rewarding high achieving workers.

"They say 'equal pay for equal work,'" he said. "The problem is that there is very rarely equal work."

But King said collective bargaining is a critical tool that helped GM's Spring Hill, Tenn., plant. Without the UAW contract, King said that plant would be closed today.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or