U.S. Sen. Bob Corker speaks to reporters in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Feb. 15. (Erik Schelzig / AP)
Washington — Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker on Thursday urged the National Labor Relations Board not to overturn the election results at Volkswagen AG's Chattanooga plant after the United Auto Workers union appealed the results.
The UAW said outside groups and individuals — like Corker — had sought to intimidate workers, who on the first day of three days of voting said he had been told that if workers rejected the UAW, the German automaker would decide to locate production of a new planned midsize SUV in Tennessee.
"I probably am 'Public Enemy No. 1' to the UAW," Corker told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor because he had pushed in hearings in late 2008 when U.S. automakers were seeking bailouts that the UAW agree to competitive overall wages and benefits with lower paid U.S. autoworkers at foreign-owned plants. "There's no doubt there is some pent up anger towards me."
Earlier this month, VW workers at the plant that builds the Passat voted 712 to 626 to reject the UAW and create a German-style works council.
Corker said the NLRB should not try to "muzzle" a U.S. senator who was simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. Some other Tennessee Republicans had said in the runup to the vote that the state legislature might not approve new incentives for the new SUV if the UAW had won. He said public officials must be allowed to speak their minds.
Corker said he was responding to rumors on the plant floor.
"There were efforts to scare the employees that if they didn't vote for the UAW" that VW would not locate production of the new mid-size SUV. "I think it was very apparent that the UAW is in Chattanooga for one reason: dollars."
The UAW declined to directly respond to Corker's criticism.
"Corker's conduct is under investigation by the National Labor Relations Labor board and we're focusing on that," UAW spokewoman Michele Martin.
Labor experts say the NLRB will likely take months to investigate — and will likely hold a hearing on the appeal.
The vote at the 4-year-old plant — after more than two years of effort by the union — may have been the Detroit union's best chance to reverse nearly two decades of decline.
It was a dramatic reversal from September, when the UAW presented a majority of union cards signed by members saying they wanted to join.
Corker was involved in talks between the UAW, Detroit's Big Three and senators in December 2008 trying to hammer out a bailout deal. After the talks collapsed, President George W. Bush rescued General Motors and Chrysler and their finance companies with a $25 billion bailout.
But he included principles that Corker had laid out — including that overall UAW wages and benefits would have to be competitive with lower-paid foreign autoworkers in the U.S.
"I became very aware of what the UAW's interests were — not the company or the companies. It was not their employees. It was solely their survival," Corker said. "I had an insight I thought into what the UAW is about."
Corker came under severe criticism by the UAW and many in Detroit blamed him for the collapse of the deal.
Corker said workers at VW's Chattanooga plant "already made more" than lower-paid entry level workers at Detroit's Big Three plants. "The workers there, I think, realized that there was really nothing the UAW could bring to them," Corker said.
Corker criticized the tier-two pay structure at Detroit's Big Three auto plants. "In other words if you are new, you're not as good," Corker said. "
Corker said he was not anti-union. He hasn't specified who precisely told him that VW would still bring production of the mid-size SUV to Tennessee, but said he talks to officials up to VW CEO Martin Winterkorn.
"For months I've known the top management wanted to locate the SUV line in Chattanooga," Corker said. Corker said Winterkorn said "everything but that" in a speech at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month. The Chattanooga VW plant was "built to add another line," Corker said.
Corker's statement said if workers rejected the UAW, VW would bring the vehicle to the plant. VW issued a statement saying the vote would have no impact on the decision.
"As much I as don't like the UAW and as much I don't like what they've done to our country... I would never ever say something that I didn't believe to be 100 percent true. Never. I would never say that. Never would that happen. Not worth it."
He said the VW decision may be "clouded" or delayed by the appeal over the vote.
Noting that the UAW's membership has fallen from 1.5 million members in 1979 to less than 400,000 today. "I've just seen the job destruction that the UAW's been involved in," Corker said.
He repeatedly defended his comments made late on the first day of voting — after about 1,000 of the nearly 1,400 VW workers that voted had already cast ballots. He thinks the grassroots efforts of workers had a bigger impact on the final vote than his comments. "How many people unfortunately for all of y'all — how many people even read the paper?" he told the group of journalists.
Corker said GM's Spring Hill plant "has been anything but a success" — noting that was idled and then reopened after GM's 2009 bankruptcy restructuring. He said the nearby Nissan plant has been a "home run."
On other issues, Corker said tax reform proposed by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, had no chance of passing this year and neither did immigration reform. The only possible significant legislative achievement, he thinks, is reform of government-sponsored firms that buy mortgages. He said the Senate is on " a verge of a death spiral" because of Democratic leaders refusing to allow debates on many issues.