Republicans fighting a years-long unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee painted a grim picture in the days leading up to last week’s vote. They said if Chattanooga employees joined the United Auto Workers, jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.
Now that workers have rejected the UAW in a close vote, attention turns to whether the GOP can fulfill its promises that keeping the union out means more jobs will come rolling in, the next great chapter in the flourishing of foreign automakers in the South.
Regardless of what political consequences, if any, Republicans would face if that fails to happen, the Volkswagen vote established a playbook for denying the UAW its goal of expanding into foreign-owned plants in the region, which the union itself has called the key to its long-term future.
On the first of three days of voting at the Chattanooga plant, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker all but guaranteed the German automaker would announce within two weeks of a union rejection that it would build a new midsize sport utility vehicle at its only U.S. factory instead of sending the work to Mexico.
“What they wanted me to know, unsolicited, that if the vote goes negative, they’re going to announce immediately that they’re going to build a second line,” Corker told The Associated Press of his conversations with unnamed Volkswagen officials.
The company reiterated its long-standing position that the union vote would not factor into the decision, and Corker acknowledged that he had no information on whether the company would also expand if the union won.
But the implication was clear, and union leaders said after the vote that the senator’s statements — coming in concert with threats from state lawmakers to torpedo state incentives if the UAW won — played a key role in the vote.
The UAW was defeated in a 712-626 vote Friday night.
UAW President Bob King called it unprecedented for Corker and other elected officials to have “threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with a loss of product.”
“It’s outrageous,” King said.
Many viewed VW as the union’s best chance to win in the South because other automakers have not been as welcoming to organized labor as Volkswagen.
Labor interests make up half of the supervisory board at VW in Germany, and they questioned why the Chattanooga plant is the company’s only major factory worldwide without formal worker representation.
VW wanted a German-style “works council” in Chattanooga to give employees, blue collar and salaried workers, a say over working conditions. But the company said U.S. law won’t allow it without an independent union.