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NOTE: More than 1,700 Volkswagen Chattanooga production and skilled trades workers will vote this week in the third union election at the plant since 2014.

A United Auto Workers victory would give the union a major win at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South for the first time, while a defeat would be seen as a significant setback for the Detroit-based union.

Workers will cast ballots Wednesday through Friday at the factory over whether to align with the UAW.

In 2014, the UAW lost an election by a margin of 712-626. About a year later, skilled trades workers approved the union by a vote of 108-44. But the company refused to bargain, saying it wanted a vote of all production and maintenance workers.

Last month, the union disavowed the smaller group and the National Labor Relations Boar approved the union's petitions for the new election.

The Times Free Press spent time with workers on both sides of the issue recently to gain their insights into the vote.

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The Volkswagen plant employees who gathered to talk about their opposition to the United Auto Workers in next week's union election in Chattanooga were sporting identical T-shirts recently.

"We Are Volkswagen," said the front of the shirt. "No 2 UAW."

some text Volkswagen employee Comekia Mikes poses for a portrait in the law offices of Evans Harrison Hackett PLLC on Friday, May 31, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mikes is one of a group of employees opposes the unionization of Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant by the United Automobile Workers of America.

The anti-union workers who spoke to the Times Free Press said they don't need the Detroit-based UAW to speak for them when they already have a voice at the plant. They criticized the UAW for the ongoing federal corruption probe of the union and for what they feel are unfair attacks by the UAW and its supporters against the automaker.

"When people attack the company, you're attacking me," said Keri Menendez, a nine-year VW worker and team leader. "It's very frustrating."

She cited ads from a Michigan political consultant and union member which have hit VW's so-called "culture of corruption." Ads have focused on former VW Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn and his indictment in Germany and the United States over the diesel emission scandal.

Menendez said she's tired of hearing how "bad" it is in the plant.

"It's not that bad," she said, adding that Volkswagen "has done a lot for us."

Brandi Gengler, who has worked at the plant for more than eight years in electrical repair, said she has been turned off by the badgering attitude of UAW supporters during the campaign effort at the plant.

"I don't want someone showing me disrespect," she said, adding the behavior of pro-UAW workers raises questions of how they would act when they're at the bargaining table with VW.

Gengler also worried about what she termed "corrupt leadership" at the UAW in Detroit. To date, seven people have been sentenced in the federal government's ongoing corruption investigation.

In addition, she's concerned that money paid to the union will be used to further a political agenda.

Mary Morrison, an eight-year employee in quality control, said the union simply isn't needed.

"I don't want it in the door," she said.

While the union has said it would give employees a voice, Morrison said workers already have one. If she has an issue, she said, she doesn't want to have to go to a union representative first before she approaches the company.

"Then it's everybody's business," Morrison said.

Darrell Belcher, who's employed in final assembly at the plant, said he has worked at both union and non-union companies, and he preferred the job without the union. He said the union didn't benefit him when he came it came to money and benefits.

some text Volkswagen employee Keri Menendez poses for a portrait in the law offices of Evans Harrison Hackett PLLC on Friday, May 31, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Menendez is one of a group of employees opposes the unionization of Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant by the United Automobile Workers of America.

At the non-union company, he made more money and the benefits were just as good. At VW, he already has "good pay and benefits," Belcher said.

Comekia Mikes, who works in assembly at the plant and has been there for nine years, said she fears for the job security of people at the factory if the UAW ends up representing production and maintenance employees.

When the assembly line slows amid the inevitable highs and lows of production, she believes the company will be more apt to cut employees if the union is voted in.

"We have to make money," Mikes said.

She added that she's happy that former plant head Frank Fischer is back at the helm, having replaced former CEO Antonio Pinto. Mikes believes Fischer's management style of engaging with the workforce will help the environment at the plant.

"Some CEOs were more impersonal," she said. "That's where division comes in."

Gengler termed Fischer "a people person. He's for us. It's a step in the right direction."

If the anti-UAW group wins, "it would be wonderful," she said. "The badgering, division, intimidation and house visits would be over."

Menendez said the "No 2 UAW" workers have done their research.

"We're not trying to persuade people," she said. "We're trying to elevate them."

Belcher said that defeating the union "would be good."

"I'd hope they'd finally leave us alone," he said.

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

Volkswagen-UAW tensions

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