More than 1,700 Volkswagen workers go to the polls Wednesday through Friday as the United Auto Workers tries for a breakthrough in its drive to unionize a foreign automaker in the South.
A UAW win among the German carmaker's production and skilled trades workers wouldn't just impact the Chattanooga plant, but would be seen by experts as rattling the region.
"The union has been trying to break out of the Midwest domestic stronghold it has had for decades," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. "It will be interesting to see how this one goes."
* In 2018, estimates prepared by economists at Georgia State University indicate that only 3.7% of private sector employees in the U.S. are unionized, compared with 21.1% of public employees.
* The share of local workers in private businesses in the U.S. who are union members has fallen nearly in half in the past three decades from 6.7% of private sector employees in 1988 to 3.7% last year.
A flood of print, TV and digital advertising, estimated at well more than $100,000, has hit Chattanooga from not just locals but groups from places such as Washington, D.C., and Michigan.
Workers said they've been pressed by pro- and anti-union supporters at the plant and at home.
"Some people have had two or three visits," said Keri Menendez, a nine-year team leader at the 3,500-worker plant that makes the Passat sedan and Atlas SUV and has a planned new electric vehicle slated for 2022.
Meanwhile, politicians locally, from Nashville and from Midwest states also have weighed in during the campaigning leading up the election.
On Tuesday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger joined Gov. Bill Lee and some other Republican political leaders in calling for workers to reject the union.
"We have a good thing going here in Hamilton County," Coppinger said. "Our unemployment rate is below the national average and average weekly wages in our county surpass most all neighboring counties. And Volkswagen is a major reason for our success."
So, he said, the question facing the workers voting this week is simple: "Do we really want to risk it all?"
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini responded, saying the vote isn't about labor versus management.
"This vote is about building a positive, partner relationship between the two, ensuring that workers have a seat at the table, and holding management accountable," she said. "Unions, like the UAW, make sure workers and their families have a strong collective voice, a sense of economic security, and a reason to feel good about the future."
The election is the third union vote at the Chattanooga factory since 2014.
The first ended in a UAW defeat by a margin of 712 to 626. In 2015, the UAW won a vote of a small group of skilled trades workers 108 to 44, but VW never agreed to bargain with them. The UAW this spring later disclaimed that vote for an election of the full production unit this week.
Worker sentiment on the union is split, though employee dissatisfaction in the plant is said to have grown since 2014.
"The turnover rate is high," said Phillip Holbrook, a VW assembly shop employee who has worked at the factory for about three years.
Health and safety, pensions, bonuses, paid time off, and management-worker relations are among the issues that have emerged during the past several weeks since the National Labor Relations Board approved a new vote.
Also highlighted has been an ongoing federal corruption probe in which seven people linked to the union have been sentenced, along with the automaker's diesel emission scandal.
Meanwhile, widely liked former plant CEO Frank Fischer, who oversaw the Chattanooga factory's construction and its 2011 startup, was named by VW last month to lead operations, replacing Antonio Pinto, who took an assignment in Europe.
While Volkswagen as a company is supportive of unions, it has said it will remain "neutral." Still, Brauer said, there's more disagreement about the union locally, not only within VW but among the workforce, too.
But he said a union victory would go well beyond the plant.
"You'd probably see more quick attempts to unionize other auto plants," Brauer said, adding the UAW also may target companies that supply parts to the carmakers. "All are potentially areas of expansion."
He said that if the union makes inroads at the plants and in influence in general, that would expand the UAW's geographic coverage and political might in those areas.
In terms of future business recruitment, Brauer said that people can look at where unions have existed for a long time and make an argument that they add complexities to the business landscape.
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.
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