Chattanooga, Tenn.— President Barack Obama told House Democrats at a closed-door meeting Friday that he questions why some Republicans oppose the United Auto Workers’ bid to organize the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., according to a member of Congress and two House Democratic aides who attended the speech.
About 1,570 workers at the 4-year-old VW assembly plant here are completing the third day of voting on whether to form a German-style works council and if they want the UAW to represent them in bargaining for wages and benefits.
Obama raised the issue on his own after getting a question on unemployment insurance from a House Democrat. He said everyone favors the UAW except local Republicans who are “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers.”
Obama made the comments as he talked about the rise in income inequality and the role unions can play in combating it, according to those who attended the speech. Obama noted that VW supports the right of workers to join a union, and workers are going through the process of deciding whether to join. He said that some Republicans are putting the interests of German shareholders ahead of workers in Tennessee who would benefit.
Reuters reported the comment earlier. The White House didn’t immediately offer a comment.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has sharply criticized the UAW and asserted that VW will announce it will build a midsize SUV at the plant if workers reject the UAW. VW issued a statement denying the comments. Corker has said it would be “damaging” to the local economy if workers join the UAW because it would scare suppliers into locating elsewhere.
Conservative groups here have tried to convince workers not to vote to join the UAW because of its support for Obama. One billboard here features the words “United Auto Workers” with “auto” crossed out and replaced in spray paint with “Obama” to read “United Obama Workers. The billboard adds: “The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicians including Barack Obama.”
It doesn’t mention that only voluntary contributions from members can be used for political activities — not general dues.
This month, Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez both praised the idea of German-style works councils and the UAW’s embrace of the new approach. Biden said he wouldn’t comment on whether workers should join the UAW.
“I applaud the UAW for your flexibility and your new approaches to organizing workers, including embracing a new collaborative model of the works council, which has been highly successful in Germany, but it has not yet tried here in America,” Perez told about 1,500 UAW workers and retirees at the UAW’s annual political action conference earlier this month. “I applaud your leadership in those issues because it is so indeed critically important as we move forward.”
Earlier this month, King said on two separate occasions that two of President Barack Obama’s key campaign advisers, David Plouffe and David Axlerod, individually told him that “without the UAW we would not have won this election, in the battleground states especially.” The $85 billion auto bailout and Mitt Romney’s opposition was a key issue in Ohio and other states.
Results of the vote will be announced Friday night.