Hamilton County legislators say UAW jeopardizes Volkswagen Chattanooga's future growth as union discounts worries state incentives will be harder to come by

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, addresses a legislative forum.
State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, addresses a legislative forum.

Two state legislators from Hamilton County say that a unionized Chattanooga Volkswagen plant would make it harder to gain future incentive packages to spur more growth at the factory.

But the United Auto Workers discounted the idea that incentives would be affected, saying the union-organized General Motors production plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, is doing well and has landed state help in the past.

Volkswagen-UAW tensions

Still, State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that if the UAW wins next week's union election at the plant, that will make future discussions with the Legislature more difficult when it comes to getting state incentive dollars.

"We want VW to continue to invest in our state and community. It makes the argument more difficult," said Watson, who is chairman of the Senate's Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

In the just past legislative session, Gov. Bill Lee proposed and the General Assembly approved a $50 million state incentive grant for Volkswagen to make electric vehicles and employ 1,000 more workers.

State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said a UAW win will make it "impossible to defend state incentives when they're going to a shop that benefits a labor union."

"There's always a better way than organized labor," she said, adding that she's also challenging Volkswagen to develop a process "a little more Americanized" to address employee concerns at the plant.

However, Brian Rothenberg of UAW International said the election is about Chattanooga workers having the same rights as other employees.

"The Legislature has already repeatedly approved these incentives for unionized industries, including Spring Hill," he said. "Spring Hill is going gangbusters."

VW plant worker William Sprinkle, too, said production at the GM plant is going well, having recently landed another vehicle to assemble.

"Politicians need to come down and talk to us. They see it from the outside," said Sprinkle, one of a handful of VW workers made available by the union to talk with media representatives on Friday.

Watson said the GM plant over the years hasn't done as well as the nonunion Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tennessee, or VW long-term if it doesn't unionize.

He said people have a right to organize. But, he said, they have to be fully informed about consequences as well as the past performance of the UAW.

States such as Michigan, where the UAW is headquartered, recently has become a right-to-work state, Watson said. At right-to-work states, employees are entitled to work in unionized workplaces without joining the union or paying regular union dues.

Companies have started migrating from "the Rust Belt" to right-to-work states such as Tennessee in the South for that reason, Watson said.

"Why repeat behavior that we watched erode the economies north of us?" he asked.

Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman whose legislative district includes the plant, said she doesn't want to see an outside influence such as a labor union hurt economic development in the future.

"It hurts employees who are left to deal with the fallout," she said.

Smith said the UAW isn't like apprenticeship programs involving welders or plumbers which do "a fantastic job."

"The UAW is completely different," she said. "It benefits more people from the outside than actual workers."

Smith said while there seem to be concerns among employees of VW, she's hopeful the company "listens loudly and carefully."

Matt Sexton, a VW employee who's supporting the union, said Friday that there's "a lot of change that needs to happen at the plant."

He cited issues such as paid time off, which he said the company doesn't want employees to use.

"We should have some sick days," Sexton said, adding that VW isn't respecting workers or their families.

Taylor Fugate, another worker, said he believed a union would provide a better work environment and that overall morale could be better.

"I don't want to come across like VW is a bad place to work," he added.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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