Let's hope political 'intangibles' haven't blocked our VW SUV

Let's hope political 'intangibles' haven't blocked our VW SUV

May 15th, 2014 in Opinion Times

VW's new midsize SUV concept, called the Crossblue, was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2013.

Photo by Mike Pare

In mid-February, mere hours before the Volkswagen-UAW vote was to commence in Chattanooga, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said an announcement could be expected in two weeks that VW would bring its new SUV production line here if - emphasis on if - the Chattanooga VW workers voted against unionizing.

They did. The workers rejected the union with 712 "no" and 626 "yes" votes.

Now it's mid-May, going on 13 weeks later, and still there's no announcement.

First Corker and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other state officials blamed the delay in bringing a second auto assembly line and at least 1,000 new jobs here on a UAW appeal. The union claimed Tennessee politicians interfered with the election.

It was just little things, you know -- like Corker's innuendo that a union yes vote here would stop the expansion. VW had invited UAW in to help the automaker set up a U.S.-legal "works council," something that has been installed by the automaker in all but two of its other plants around the world.

As it turns out, a "yes" vote likely would have stopped the local expansion because documents outlining the agreements over $300 million in state economic incentives read like this: "The incentives ... are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee."

Once the documents turned up, pre-vote comments made by our own Sen. Bo Watson made much more sense -- at least politically. Watson said just days before the union vote, "Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate." To add insult, he called Volkswagen's UAW/works council effort "un-American."

And, according to news reports after the documents were found, Haslam withdrew the incentives offer as workers prepared to vote.

On April 21, two months after the vote, UAW withdrew its appeal, citing the "best interests" of VW employees, the automaker and economic development in Chattanooga because a continued legal fight could drag on for months or even years -- especially with Haslam's and Corker's refusal to participate in the appeal's legal discovery process.

Every once in a while since the vote, Corker has piped up again with his chant that an announcement will come soon.

On Monday, he did it again, this time saying a "decision" -- will be made "in the very near future."

"I'm not going to put a time frame, but it's moving in the right direction," Corker said.

The decision comes down to expanding the Chattanooga plant -- VW's newest assembly plant -- or expanding the Puebla, Mexico, plant where VW has been building automobiles for 50 years and already has more than five times as many employees as Chattanooga's operation.

And today, Times Free Press reporter Mike Pare writes that VW has told Chattanooga air pollution regulators that it is seeking to expand its air emissions permit capacity "to allow for increased vehicle production" here.

That's good news, but we can't bet the farm yet. Permits take time to amend and many companies start that ball rolling before actual expansion commitments just to clear possible unforeseen complications or just to be ready for whatever coming announcement might be made. Just last week, state officials told Pare that they had restarted talks with VW, but a meeting hadn't been held on the project yet.

When VW announced in 2008 that it would build the Passat here, the automaker's leaders gestured toward our mountains, river and 21st Century Waterfront while crediting Chattanooga's "intangibles" as the final deal clincher in their decision.

Let us hope that VW has not now found in Sen. Corker, Gov. Haslam and the Tennessee Legislature yet another "intangible" that is not so appealing.