Gov. Lee, top Republicans celebrate failed UAW bid to unionize Volkswagen

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann speaks during the Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave the keynote address to the summit.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann speaks during the Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave the keynote address to the summit.

NASHVILLE - Top Tennessee Republican elected leaders are celebrating the United Auto Workers' failed second bid to win union representation at Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant.

"The workers have spoken, and I think they spoke well on their own behalf, they didn't need someone else speaking for them," Gov. Bill Lee, who in April visited the plant and urged VW workers to reject the union, told reporters ahead of Saturday night's annual Tennessee Statesmen's fundraiser for the state GOP.

Lee said he believes workers "made the right decision, and I'm certain that will be the decision they have in the years ahead."

Volkswagen-UAW tensions

Workers at the 1,700-worker plant voted 833-776 on Friday night against representation by the UAW, which in 2014 saw a similar effort fizzle to organize assembly workers at the plant, which manufacturers the Passat sedan and the Atlas SUV.

But this year's vote was closer than five years ago. And pro-union workers could come back in a year and try again.

"Chattanooga workers made the decision and it as always will be up to them," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in an email. "They are the only VW workers in the world without a union."

A number of top Republicans weighed in Saturday night prior to the party's annual fundraiser.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., whose district includes the VW plant, said he was "very pleased" by the outcome but emphasized that now is the time for workers to put their differences aside.

"Now that that is over, I think it's time for a healing process, for those who voted against the union and those who voted for it to come together," the Ooltewah congressman said. "I want to make sure that going forward that Chattanooga embraces Volkswagen and Volkswagen embraces Chattanooga."

Fleischmann said he plans "to do everything possible to make sure that healing process is real. The bottom line is I'm very pleased by the vote."

Asked what Volkswagen should do in light of the 48.1 percent of workers who voted for UAW representation and also publicly aired concerns about what they said was adverse treatment and work conditions, Fleischmann said "I think they've already taken the main step in the right direction in getting Frank Fischer back into the plant."

"They brought the original president who was beloved from the inception," Fleischmann said of Fischer. "They brought him back at the helm. I think that basically was the driving force, one of the key factors that got the no vote."

Fischer abruptly returned to Chattanooga last month to replace Antonio Pinto, who was shifted to a position in Europe.

"His [Fischer's] reassurance and Volkswagen's reassurance that they're going to listen to the workers' concerns and work with them is going to move it in the right direction," Fleischmann said. "If that happens, no room for UAW to come back."

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who as Tennessee's governor in the 1970s and 1980s helped put Tennessee on the national auto manufacturing industry map by recruiting Nissan and General Motors plants, said, "I think this sends a signal across the Southeast that the UAW is probably going to have a difficult time organizing any of these plants."

Alexander said he didn't get publicly involved in the battle "because we have a right to work law which means that employees have the right to make their decision and they did.

"And I think that what they did was they looked at our state and they saw Nissan which has done well without a union and in fact has created the most efficient auto plant in North America," Alexander added. "So I think that's a decision for employees to make. They made it. And it's not up to me to make that decision for them."

State Rep. Robin Smith, who said before this week's election it would be harder to win state approval for more state incentives for VW if the plant was unionized, also praised workers for voting against the UAW.

"You chose to put your company, its future first, not an outside labor union," Smith said in a tweet after the election results were announced. "This global company will grow, excel and take the personality of its great people."

In advance of the three-day election this week, Lee, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Watson all urged VW workers to reject the UAW.

Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, criticized the GOP leaders for trying to inject their views into the workers' election and cause more division between unions and employers.

"Those in powerful positions work to divide us," Mancini said. "In Tennessee, labor unions embody our values of looking out for each other, whether we're white, black or brown, tenth generation or newcomer, blue collar or white."

Mancini said her party supports labor unions.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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