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Bill Haslam
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At right, UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel speaks to Times Free Press staff in this August photo along with UAW Local 42 members Jonathan Walden and Kay Gray.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he still worries that expansion of labor unions in Tennessee such as the United Auto Workers will hurt economic development, but the UAW termed the charge "saber-rattling" and "just not true."

Haslam cited an example, saying he received a call from a company chief executive last Thursday who was looking at a site in Tennessee for a 1,500-employee facility.

"We thought he had an issue of tax ramifications," Haslam said. "He said 'I think I can get past that. I'm very concerned about unions in Tennessee.'"

On Monday, the business prospect struck a deal to locate in another state, the governor said in Chattanooga.

However, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said Volkswagen doesn't have problems recruiting suppliers for its Chattanooga plant, nor does the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

"I'm just not buying it," Casteel said, adding that the governor and others who make such claims never identify the companies. "It's 'we saw Sasquatch,' but they can't tell you where."

Haslam's remarks come as the UAW last week gained ground at VW's Chattanooga plant.

Factory officials unveiled a new policy last month, saying it would open dialogue with labor groups based on their membership levels.

An independent auditor hired by VW verified the UAW had membership cards of at least 45 percent of the plant's blue-collar workers, triggering new rights for the union involving factory access and meetings with management.

Haslam, speaking to newspaper editors and reporters, added that he's concerned about the process VW is using in its new policy.

"If I signed a card a year ago and gave that to you, does that count if it's a year old?" Haslam asked. "Is there any expiration on the cards? What were the circumstances it was obtained?"

The governor said he has expressed his worries about the process to VW, adding he knows managers are "walking a fine line" due to VW's corporate structure of heavy union board membership in Germany.

"They understand our concerns," Haslam said.

VW had no comment.

The governor said labor unions are an area of concern for some companies.

"Not every company brings it up, but some companies do bring it up as a concern -- and it's a real one. I can't say that in every discussion I have that businesses are really concerned about that, but it comes up on a frequent basis," Haslam said.

The governor said that knowing why a business locates in one state or another is always hard to assess.

"Recruiting companies is a little bit like recruiting football players or anything else -- the recruits will use anything they can to get an advantage," Haslam said. "People will use whatever advantage they have and whatever disadvantage you have to make their case. Others may warn a prospect that 'you better check out such and such.'

Casteel said Tennessee's union density is way down the list of states.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee had the biggest percentage gain in union membership of any state in the country during 2013. But the share of Tennesseans belonging to labor unions was only 6.1 percent of all workers, or only about half of the U.S. rate of 11.3 percent.

Tennessee ranked 15th among the 50 states for the lowest share of workers belonging to labor unions.

Casteel said that original equipment manufacturers, because of just-in-time processes, often need suppliers to be close.

"Suppliers are going to go where they're building automobiles," he said.

In September, auto parts supplier Magna International said it was moving to Spring Hill, bringing 357 new jobs and investing $16 million in a new facility. In May, supplier Plastic Omnium announced plans for a new plant near VW, ultimately employing 300 people in a $70 million plant.

The UAW has had a presence in Tennessee for decades and represents thousands of workers at Spring Hill and other auto suppliers in Cookeville and other places in the state. The UAW has four locals in Tennessee, including the newly established Local 42 in Chattanooga, which is a nondues paying local that is trying to represent workers at the nonunion VW plant.

But the high-profile campaign by the UAW to organize workers at Volkswagen is attracting global attention as it could be the first foreign transplant in the South where the UAW gets a foothold with an original equipment manufacturer.

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

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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