VW workers 'trying to make light of situation, but we just don't know'

Water beads up on the VW insignia on the hood of a car in this April file photo.
photo Martin Winterkorn, VW CEO, has said he is "deeply sorry" the German company violated U.S. emissions standards. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Things were outwardly calm Wednesday morning inside Das Café in the Volkswagen Academy at Chattanooga's VW assembly plant.

It was soon after VW CEO Martin Winterkorn announced his resignation over Volkswagen's "diesel deception" at a news conference in Germany. Workers eating lunch in the airy cafeteria said Volkswagen hadn't informed them of the latest development. But in the smartphone era, they heard the news.

"We're trying to make light of the situation - but we just don't know," said one employee who didn't want his name used.

Another plant worker who wanted to remain anonymous said, "I've been here five years, and it's been great. I'd like to see everything bounce back."

As the scandal continued to unfold, Chattanoogans voiced feelings of uncertainty and anxiety over the fate of the auto manufacturer, which has provided 2,500 jobs, directly, and proposes to add 2,000 more by building a new sport utility vehicle here. VW's presence in Chattanooga also has created thousands of jobs from suppliers and other employers.

According to studies by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, VW and its suppliers could ultimately add nearly 20,000 jobs in the regional economy.

One worry is that a good percentage of the Passats built at the assembly plant here are equipped with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine VW took off the market. VW officials didn't respond to questions about exactly how many diesel Passats are built in Chattanooga, but overall, the diesel version accounts for about 28 percent of model sales, industry experts say.

"I've heard personally that people in the plant are anxious and wondering just how secure their job is at this point," said Devin Gore, who worked almost four years in the Chattanooga VW plant.

Volkswagen's biggest dealer, Mike Jackson, CEO of Auto Nation, told CNBC Wednesday, "The Volkswagen brand is at risk. How it develops depends very much on how they respond to the crisis in the next few days, weeks and months."

Other dealers are more sanguine about the scandal, insisting that VW will fix its problems and recover its image and quality.

Al Johnson, an 81-year-old Dalton, Ga., car dealer, is confident Volkswagen will bounce back.

"All I know is that I have been a Volkswagen dealer going on 48 years, and we've always had ups and downs," he said.

On Wednesday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger echoed Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's calming statements about VW's future in Chattanooga.

"I've not heard anything different as far as Volkswagen's plans for Chattanooga," Coppinger said. "And I have no reason at this point to believe anything's going to change."

"We want them to be successful," Coppinger said. "We need them to be successful."

Germany's public TV station, ARD, sent a news crew from Washington, D.C., to Chattanooga on Wednesday to showcase how the scandal is affecting the city. ARD's nightly news has about 10 million viewers and is Germany's most-trusted program, said senior producer Hillery Gallasch. The Volkswagen scandal has eclipsed the immigrant crisis as the biggest story of the week, she said.

VW's Chattanooga employees are reluctant to speak to the media, Gore said, because company policy forbids it without prior approval from the human resources department.

But concern over VW's future has reached the man on the street in Chattanooga - literally.

"It's very significant. I think everybody over there [at VW's Chattanooga assembly plant] is worried," said Lou Dykes, as he waited Wednesday afternoon for a CARTA bus on Market Street.

Staff writer Alex Green contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or twitter.com/meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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