Workers walk by the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Erik Schelzig / AP)
Chattanooga, Tenn.— The future of the United Auto Workers — once one of the largest, most powerful unions in the United States — could be decided by just 1,570 workers at a Volkswagen AG plant here.
Voting that began Wednesday ends tonight, as production workers decide whether to form a German-style works council. If workers vote to join the UAW, the Detroit union would have its first victory in decades of unsuccessful attempts to organize foreign auto plants.
For three days, workers have been going to small town style voting booths to check “yes” or “no” on paper ballots. It was unclear Thursday night how many votes had been cast.
The election is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
Rejection would be a major setback for the Detroit-based UAW, which has mounted a costly campaign to organize foreign auto plants. UAW President Bob King has warned that his union has no future if it can’t organize foreign-owned plants, because it will be nearly impossible to demand higher wages from Detroit’s automakers if the foreign companies remain non-union and don’t hike wages.
In an interview with The Detroit News Thursday, King said the UAW will move on to other organizing campaigns if it fails in Chattanooga. He declined to say if the union would shift its focus to other German auto plants in the U.S., or return its focus to a Nissan Motor Co. plant in Mississippi. “I’m not making any predictions,” King said. “Let the workers decide. ... The workers’ will will be heard.”
VW has said it supports a works council at the plant, as it has at all its major plants worldwide. Opposition has come from conservative groups, which have mounted a well-funded drive to convince workers to vote no — even erecting billboards suggesting unions were responsible for Detroit’s downward spiral.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., raised the stakes late Wednesday when he asserted he had talks with unnamed officials who said VW would bring production of its planned mid-size SUV to Chattanooga and announce the decision in weeks if VW workers rejected the UAW. VW flatly denied that claim, but Corker did not back down from his contention.
Lauren Feinauer, 37, originally from Holland, Mich., has worked on the VW plant’s quality team since July 2011. She said she thinks the conservative campaign against the UAW has backfired. “They’re insulting the intelligence of the team members to suggest that they didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. “We’re capable adults.”
Talks among workers about whether to join the UAW have gone on for more than two years, she said.
“We don’t like being told what to do and how to think, and we certainly don’t like being threatened — it’s a stubborn streak we have in the South,” said Jonathan Walden, another VW employee who works in the paint shop and who is originally from southwest Alabama.
Opponents have noted in recent days — including in a full-page ad in the local newspaper — that workers could form a works council without the UAW. But under U.S. labor law, it needs an independent union to represent it on some issues.
A works council is established by plant employees but paid for by the employer to negotiate factory-specific conditions, such as bonuses, daily work hours and codes of conduct. Bargaining for wages and benefits is done by an industry-level union.
Works councils have been effective at Volkswagen and other companies in Europe. Their inclusive membership — they are made up of representatives of blue- and white-collar workers, managers and supervisors — helps reduce conflict and promotes the view that the employer and its employees are partners in a common enterprise.
Employee Mike Jarvis, who is part of an effort to defeat the UAW, argues that the union’s pledge to keep VW competitive could mean employees wouldn’t get raises.
“The UAW, behind our backs, has already agreed to ‘maintaining and where possible enhancing’ VW’s cost advantages,” Jarvis said.
The battle is playing out in Tennessee’s fourth largest city — once an industrial powerhouse, which became a railroad hub and manufacturing center in the late 19th century. VW is among the area’s largest private employers, with 2,500 direct jobs; it supports thousands of other jobs at suppliers.
Between 1970 and 1980, the city’s population rose more than 40 percent to exceed 169,000 amid a boom in manufacturing, but then fell 10 percent. It wasn’t until 2011 that the city’s population returned to the record high levels set in 1980.
Interviews with more than a dozen people Thursday here showed most support the UAW’s organizing effort at the plant, where 1,500 production workers make the VW Passat. But many expressed deep skepticism about unions — reflecting the overall reluctance of many in the South to embrace organized labor.
Some worried that the union could be a negative for the fast-growing city; others think it will give workers a voice.
Over a big plate of southern breakfast — grits, bacon and sunny side up eggs — J.P Black, 58, of nearby Cedartown, Ga., warned that the union must not go too far in demanding too much — or it could force the company out of town.
But he said unions can also play an important role.
“You can’t get greedy and price yourselves out of a job,” said Black, who hauls heavy equipment. “But if the company is fair-minded to start with, you don’t need a hall monitor. You don’t need to watch me and see how long I stay in the bathroom.”
Black noted that there are billboards near the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama that read “Alabama’s comprised of winners, not losers: no unions,” he said.
Retired school teacher Beth Rice, 55, thinks the city is divided “50-50” on whether VW workers should join the UAW — though she said she supports it. “I think they need to move forward,” she said.
Chattanooga, she said, has become more liberal than other Tennessee cities such as Nashville or Knoxville, even though it is a still a largely conservative southern city. “They call it the Boulder of the East,” Rice said.
Kevin Ricks, 34, who roasts coffee in Chattanooga, said VW has been a good corporate citizen — and hosts a race to raise money for colon cancer called the “Rump Run.”
“Chattanooga comes from old money and there’s not much unionization happening,” said Ricks, noting that many unions have protested the construction of buildings by non-union workers.
The Volunteer State is among the least unionized in the country, and has a Right to Work law. But last year, union membership rose 25 percent to 155,000 — up from 124,000 in 2012 — and the percentage of workers unionized in the state rose from 4.8 percent to 6.1 percent.