February 12, 2014 at 8:33 pm

VW union vote begins as foes turn up heat

A 'yes' vote to join the UAW and form a German-style works council at VW's Chattanooga plant could help it organize other German plants. (Erik Schelzig / Associated Press)

More than 1,500 workers at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant started the first of three days of voting Wednesday to decide whether to join the United Auto Workers and form a German-style works council.

The vote, which ends at 8:30 p.m. Friday, represents the Detroit-based union’s best chance at organizing a foreign automaker’s U.S. plant. A win in Chattanooga could help it organize other German auto plants in the U.S. BMW AG has a plant in Spartanburg, S.C.; Daimler AG has a Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Behind the scenes, UAW and VW officials say they expect workers to approve the union. But conservative groups and Tennessee Republican politicians have been making a well-funded push to convince workers that joining the union could hurt the region. They have paid for billboards with photographs showing Detroit blight.

On Wednesday, the conservative Americans for Tax Reform led by Grover Norquist launched a new radio campaign in Chattanooga.

“The UAW wants you to believe that VW employees are deciding whether or not to have a German-style works council. Wrong!” the ad says. “ The UAW is the only thing on the ballot. The same union that bankrupted GM and Detroit. The truth is, workers don’t need the UAW to form a works council, and VW doesn’t need a works council to make cars. Chattanooga isn’t Germany, or Detroit. At least, not yet.”

UAW President Bob King decried last week the heavy spending of outside groups. He said without their intervention there would already be a union at VW, because a majority of workers signed union cards in September.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former mayor of Chattanooga who helped convince VW to locate in the state, said the talks were already hurting the area’s economy.

“If the UAW is not going to have a negative impact, I could care less,” Corker said at a press conference Tuesday.

But he said the discussions were having a “negative effect” on Chattanooga’s economic growth, and that a UAW win would hurt the area: “It is something that will hurt the standard of living of people here in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because businesses are not going to want to locate here.”

The UAW has slammed the attacks, including the statement from a Republican state senator on Monday that the state could end incentives for further growth of the plant.

Mike Herron, chairman of UAW Local 1853 which includes the General Motors Co. plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., noted that plant only reopened because the union worked constructively with GM. “The UAW has had a very positive impact on economic development in the state of Tennessee,” he said. “The General Motors Spring Hill Assembly plant was idled during the economic crisis. It is only open today because the UAW negotiated to re-open the plant in 2011 collective bargaining.”

Herron noted the agreement “resulted in a $350 million investment from GM and more than 1,800 jobs at plant and thousands more at businesses that support Spring Hill. GM will add at least another 1,800 jobs with the addition of two new products. GM does not have any problem attracting suppliers to Tennessee or getting incentives from the state. When you’re going to bring 2,000 jobs to the state, people are interested in participating. There’s no shortage of elected officials who are eager to be a part of that process.”

He said the state needs to support jobs. “It’s time for Tennesseans to pull together and support economic development in the state, whether the workers choose to be in a union or not,” he said.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com