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labor Union Drive Doesn’t Bother Management, But G.O.P. Fumes

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee are currently voting on union representation. While the company has remained neutral but national right-wing organizations and Republicans have been very vocal in calling for a no vote. A victory for the workers and the UAW would have major implications for union organizing in the South.

As workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., prepare to vote this week on whether to join the United Automobile Workers, they are facing unusual pressure from the state’s Republican legislators to reject the union.

State Senator Bo Watson, who represents a suburb of Chattanooga, warned on Monday that if VW’s workers voted to embrace the U.A.W., the Republican-controlled Legislature might vote against approving future incentives to help the plant expand.

“The members of the Tennessee Senate will not view unionization as in the best interest of Tennessee,” Mr. Watson said at a news conference. He added that a pro-U.A.W. vote would make it “exponentially more challenging” for the legislature to approve future subsidies.

A loss of such incentives, industry analysts say, could persuade Volkswagen to award production of a new S.U.V. to its plant in Mexico instead of to the Chattanooga plant, which currently assembles the Passat.

At a news conference on Tuesday, United States Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga and a Republican, also called on VW employees to reject the union. He called it “a Detroit-based organization” whose key to survival was to organize plants in the South.

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Workers assemble Volkswagen Passats in Chattanooga. Erik Schelzig/Associated Press
“We’re concerned about the impact,” Mr. Corker said. “Look at Detroit.”

This week’s vote, which will run for three days beginning on Wednesday, is being closely watched because it could make the Volkswagen factory the first foreign-owned auto assembly plant to be unionized in the traditionally anti-union South. Some industry experts say the U.A.W.’s prospects of succeeding have been buoyed by Volkswagen’s decision not to oppose the unionization drive and even to hint support for the union.

Volkswagen is eager to have a German-style works council at the Chattanooga plant. The council would bring together managers and white- and blue-collar workers to help set factory policies and foster collaboration. Many labor experts say that to have a works council, employees first need to vote for a labor union to represent them. If the Chattanooga plant establishes a works council, it would be the first factory in the United States to do so.

“Our works councils are key to our success and productivity,” said Frank Fischer, Volkswagen Chattanooga’s chief executive and chairman. “It is a business model that helped to make Volkswagen the second-largest car company in the world. Our plant in Chattanooga has the opportunity to create a uniquely American works council, in which the company would be able to work cooperatively with our employees and ultimately their union representatives, if the employees decide they wish to be represented by a union.”

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Labor experts say a U.A.W. victory could create momentum to unionize the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., and the BMW plant in Spartanburg, S.C.

Concerned that a U.A.W. victory would hurt Tennessee’s business climate, Gov. Bill Haslam has warned that auto parts suppliers might decide against locating in Chattanooga because they might not want to set up near a unionized VW plant.

“I think that there are some ramifications to the vote in terms of our ability to attract other suppliers,” the Republican governor told the editorial board of The Tennessean last week. “When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time.”

The Republican pressure has had the U.A.W. and Democratic lawmakers crying foul.

“This is an outrageous and unprecedented effort by state officials to violate the rights of employers and workers,” said Mike Turner, chairman of Tennessee’s House Democratic Caucus. “Republicans are basically threatening to kill jobs if workers exercise their federally protected rights to organize. When the company says they don’t have a problem with it, what right does the state have to come in and say they can’t do it?”

Gary Casteel, the U.A.W.’s director for the South, voiced dismay with lawmakers’ threats to end future subsidies to VW.

“It’s sad that when workers exercise their legal right to form a union, some Tennessee politicians are threatening the economic well-being of communities and businesses just because workers want to have a voice in the future of Volkswagen in Chattanooga,” Mr. Casteel said.

U.A.W. officials say that numerous auto parts suppliers have set up shop near G.M.’s unionized auto plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

The nation’s leading anti-tax activist, Grover Norquist, and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, have joined the anti-union campaign, warning that a U.A.W. victory would help bring big government to Tennessee. The group’s new affiliate, the Center for Worker Freedom, has put up 13 billboards in Chattanooga, with some calling the U.A.W. “United Obama Workers” and saying, “The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicans” — misspelling “politicians.” Another billboard says, “Detroit: Brought to you by the U.A.W.,” and shows a photo of a Packard plant that was shuttered 55 years ago.

Chris Brown, a pro-union Volkswagen worker, objects to the Republicans’ pressure. “This decision should be between the workers, VW and the U.A.W.,” he said. “We’re the parties involved. Governor Haslam is elected to run the state. This is our workplace and our decision.”

While Republicans argue that having a union would make the plant less competitive, Mr. Brown said that having a union and works council would make it more competitive by increasing employee-management cooperation.

Volkswagen, saying it was concerned about employees’ privacy, persuaded the U.A.W. not to have organizers visit workers at home to urge them to vote for the union. In return, VW has let organizers into break rooms to answer questions about unionizing.

Mike Burton, a VW worker who is opposed to the U.A.W., says that has given the union an unfair advantage, although VW officials say anti-union and pro-union workers are free to campaign and talk to one another during breaks.

Though hit hard by the Republicans’ attacks, U.A.W. officials are predicting victory, noting that most of the plant’s workers signed cards favoring a union.

But Matt Patterson, executive director of Mr. Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom, said: “I’m not predicting victory at all. As long as people are informed and know the facts, then I consider our job done. If workers learn all the facts and want a union, that’s their right.”