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Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Vote On UAW Membership

Originally published on February 12, 2014 5:57 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee begin voting today - voting whether to unionize. The location and the brand show the significance here. The Detroit automakers have traditionally built their cars in unionized plants. Overseas companies have many non-union plants in the South.

And this is seen as the United Auto Workers' best chance to finally organize at a foreign-owned plant in the South. VW has practically rolled out the welcome mat but Republicans are fighting the union. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Usually car companies do all they can within the law to keep unions out. Volkswagen, though, has taken a neutral position. German officials say they're accustomed to cooperating with labor groups in the rest of the world. But Tennessee Senator Bob Corker has been the furthest thing from impartial. He spent an hour on local talk radio station WGOW yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

FARMER: VW is personal for Corker, who was Chattanooga's mayor and helped recruit the company. He's warned Volkswagen not to mess with the UAW, which he contends has already destroyed Detroit. Even still, last week, he said he'd hold his tongue until the vote, until he couldn't any more.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

FARMER: The union already has a presence in Tennessee, but the UAW sort of came with the company when GM built in nearby Spring Hill. Republicans see Volkswagen as a potential gateway. They fear a domino effect Next it's Mercedes, Hyundai and Nissan. State lawmakers like Bo Watson have wanted to make this bigger case directly to employees. So they've talked to the media, using increasingly harsh terms.

STATE SENATOR BO WATSON: Volkswagen has promoted a campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced, and quite frankly un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Amen. Thank you, Senator. Thank you.

FARMER: That's sarcastic applause. Pro-union protesters crashed a press conference decked out in pearls and hats, as if from the Gilded Age. Their signs have mock slogans like support cheap labor. Watson fights through the jeers to defend the state's interest in the organizing effort. Taxpayers provided a half-billion dollars when Volkswagen built its plant.

And if workers want help expanding, Watson says they can forget about it with the UAW. This is a pretty timely threat since Volkswagen is now shopping for somewhere to build a new SUV.

WATSON: I believe 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.

REPRESENTATIVE JOANNE FAVORS: That is coercion. That's all you can call it.

FARMER: Democrats are holding their own press conferences. In a Chattanooga union hall, State Representative JoAnne Favors says Republicans have crossed the line into intimidation. Down the road, a billboard put up by a group associated with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist suggests the UAW will bring doom and gloom to town just like it did to Detroit. So with all that's going on across the country, you can only imagine what it's like inside the Volkswagen factory.

JOHN WRIGHT: The only drama that I can say that is persistent is actually outside the plant.

FARMER: John Wright has on a gray VW sweatshirt and leather work boots. He's headed in for the overnight shift. The UAW has signed cards of support from a majority of workers, including Wright. Some employees have come out publicly against the union. But Wright says the mood remains calm.

WRIGHT: I'm not out there brow-beating anybody for it. I mean, you know, the company says be respectful of one another and that's exactly what we're doing.

FARMER: That's not to say the UAW isn't working hard, meeting with workers who may be on the fence. If union leaders get the outcome they want when voting ends Friday, Tennessee lawmakers may end up needing to mend a fence with Volkswagen. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.