February 11, 2014 at 2:33 pm

UAW criticizes Tennessee senator for threats

The United Auto Workers sharply criticized the comments of a Tennessee state senator who warned that the state might not approve any new financial incentives for Volkswagen AG if workers vote to join the union.

The statement came as another prominent Republican on Tuesday urged VW workers not to join the UAW.

About 1,550 workers of the 2,500 at VW’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant are eligible to vote. Voting overseen by the National Labor Relations Board begins Wednesday and continues through 8:30 p.m. Friday. The UAW said in September that a majority of workers had signed cards to join the union.

“It's sad that when workers exercise their legal right to form a union, some Tennessee politicians are threatening the economic well-being of communities and businesses just because workers want to have a voice in the future of Volkswagen in Chattanooga,” said UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel, who directs the union’s Southern organizing efforts.

“If Volkswagen workers and Volkswagen management can work together on this, why is it that some Tennessee politicians are so eager to derail that process with the help of special interests from outside Tennessee and deny workers the right to participate in decisions that affect their future?”

State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, said Monday the UAW campaign at the plant is “un-American.”

“Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, 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,” he said at a press conference, according to the Associated Press.

Last week, the state’s governor, Bill Haslam, warned that a decision of workers to join the UAW could make it harder for the state to attract auto suppliers.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., urged workers to reject the UAW at a press conference on Tuesday in Chattanooga, saying it would be “damaging.”

“We know the negative impact this is already having on our ability to bring employers to Tennessee,” said Corker, according to the Wall Street Journal.

VW is officially neutral on the vote, but has allowed the UAW access to workers at the plant to make the case that workers should adopt a German-style “works council.” VW has more than 60 major plants worldwide and the Tennessee one is the only one without a union.

The UAW has struggled for decades to try to organize foreign auto plants. A win in Chattanooga could help them organize other German automakers — and potentially, Asian auto plants. The union faces well-funded opposition from conservative groups that have put up billboards criticizing the union and tying Detroit’s blight to the union.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com