Wamp, others call for vote against UAW at Volkswagen Chattanooga

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks against the unionization efforts at Volkswagen Chattanooga. Wamp and other elected officials hold a news conference outside the Enterprise South plant on Monday.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks against the unionization efforts at Volkswagen Chattanooga. Wamp and other elected officials hold a news conference outside the Enterprise South plant on Monday.

Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp on Monday urged Volkswagen Chattanooga workers to vote against aligning with the United Auto Workers, calling the union a corrupt and hyper-political operation.

"The UAW is a sinking ship," the Republican mayor said standing outside the Volkswagen plant with several other Republican state and local officials.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, also criticized the Detroit-based union, saying it has "a dubious track record."

He said voting against the UAW is protecting "Tennessee values."

But union supporter Victor Vaughn, a VW logistics team member at the plant, said in a telephone interview after the news conference that what the public officials think is right "is not the right thing to do in our case."

"This is not a UAW-driven campaign," he said. "They're helping guide us. It's the employees inside the plant asking for this. They are hard-working people."

Vaughn said the political leaders should "talk to us before they come out with statements."

Concerning remarks about union corruption, he said while things happened in the past, the UAW has new leadership in President Shawn Fain. He said Fain is "truly the working-class peoples' president."

(READ MORE: UAW says majority signed union cards)

Some 4,300 Volkswagen workers are slated to decide later this month in a secret ballot vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board whether they will choose the UAW as their bargaining representative. The dates are April 17-19, as was proposed in an election petition filed earlier by the UAW after organizing began in earnest late last year.

At the news conference, state Rep. Greg Martin, R-Hixson, said unionization of the plant could restrict VW's success, prevent job growth and limit opportunities for Chattanoogans.

"We'll take the first step toward ending this progress and move our state closer to what we've seen today in Detroit, Chicago, New York City," he said. "I strongly encourage Volkswagen employees to reject the UAW."

County Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, said at the news conference workers should look at declining cities such as Gary, Indiana, those in the "Rust Belt," in the Great Lakes region and at Detroit.

He called Detroit "the city (UAW) helped destroy over decades. Is that what you really want us to become?"

However, State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said in an interview at the news conference that his personal experience as a union steward at Mueller Co. convinced him of the value of organized labor.

"I believe this is necessary for workers here to be able to express themselves," Hakeem said Monday. "Unions have been so instrumental in the development of the middle class in America, so I think it is necessary that we support this effort."

(READ MORE: Third try by UAW at VW)

Wamp said he's not anti-union, and he cited a positive influence of the building trades unions and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"But the UAW is different," he said. "It has a well-earned reputation for corruption that reaches to the highest levels of the union."

Wamp said since the UAW's last attempt to unionize at Volkswagen in 2019, more than a dozen high-ranking officials with the union were charged with public corruption by the federal government.

"Frankly, people in the upper Midwest have caught on," he said, mentioning continued lower UAW membership.

Wamp said the UAW is "coming south looking for a bailout."

A federal probe about five years ago found broad corruption, with a dozen officials, including two former presidents, convicted of taking more than $1 million of union funds for luxury travel and other lavish personal expenses, according to The New York Times. The union has since had a court-appointed monitor oversee anti-corruption reforms. Fain was the first elected under one of those reforms, which was direct election of a president instead of a delegate system. He took the oath of office in March 2023.

Watson, who helped recruit VW to Chattanooga, said the UAW has "a history of destruction and corruption."

"Workers have a right to organize ... but I hope workers from Tennessee recognize the risk that comes with the UAW," he said. "I hope Tennessee workers will recognize that the UAW represents the party of President Joe Biden and their values and political contributions, which are completely inconsistent with the people of Southeast Tennessee."

(READ MORE: Culture of corruption: Ex-UAW leader gets 28-month sentence)

Rachel Campbell, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, who attended the news conference, complained about the use of tax dollars "to coerce workers." She said workers should be able to make a decision without such interference.

In a later statement, she termed the news conference "a blatant abuse of (Wamp's) office and of taxpayer funds" and said he "exhibited dangerous union-busting activities in an effort to gaslight VW workers, against exercising their right to unionize."

"We believe that workers have the right to organize, and should have the opportunity to make their own decisions about their future, their career and the community in which they have chosen to work and live in," she said.

Vaughn said Fain did endorse Biden because, "He's fighting for labor unions. He's walking the picket line."

The VW employee said there are probably more Republicans fighting for a union at the plant than Democrats.

"We have Republicans, Democrats, independents, which are jumping on board," Vaughn said. "We, the employees, are the union. It's not the UAW."

He said employees are "asking for a voice and a seat of the table to make a better life and make a better product. It's not about us picking a side on the political spectrum."

VW spokesperson Michael W. Lowder said recently in a statement the company respects workers' right to a democratic process and to determine who should represent their interests.

"We will fully support an NLRB vote so every team member has a chance to vote in privacy in this important decision," he said. "Volkswagen is proud of our working environment in Chattanooga that provides some of the best paying jobs in the area."

The UAW lost elections in 2014 and 2019 by close margins at the factory that produces the Atlas and ID.4 SUVs.

According to the NLRB, those workers eligible to vote are all full-time and regular part-time production and maintenance employees. Not eligible are specialists, technicians, clerical employees, engineers, purchasing and inventory workers, along with those employed by contractors or temporary agencies, managers and supervisors.

Business Editor Dave Flessner contributed to this story.

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

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