On Wednesday, the 1,500 workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., factory will hold a three-day vote on whether to authorize the United Auto Workers as their union — a vote allowed with the blessing of VW, which has said it would respect any outcome. While workers debate the merits of having the UAW inside the plant, the vote has become a flashpoint for many who've never worked the line.
Since the announcement of the vote, outside groups have flooded Chattanooga with billboards and campaign materials urging a no vote; one billboard decries that "auto unions ate Detroit." Several Tennessee Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam, have warned that a yes vote could hurt the state's chances of luring new businesses. And one lawmaker warned Monday that if the UAW won, the state might not grant VW future incentives for expanding the Chattanooga plant.
"Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then 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," said state Sen. Bo Watson, a Republican who represents Chattanooga. Watson also called VW's handling of the vote "anti-American."
Yet the opposition to the UAW seems out of proportion to any effect the vote will likely have in the plant itself. Tennessee is a right to work state, meaning no worker can be required to join a union if the UAW wins. VW and the UAW have agreed that if the vote succeeds, the union would represent a "works council" — an European-style committee that generally has less power than a traditional union local, and doesn't negotiate wages. (VW also can't threaten to move work to non-union plants even if it wanted to, since every other VW assembly plant in the world has some kind of union.)
And the VW factory wouldn't be a first. Tennessee officials have rarely objected to the UAW's presence at General Motors' plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. That factory, built in 1990 as the original Saturn site, was shuttered for a couple of years around GM's bankruptcy, but now employs 1,700 UAW workers building the Chevy Equinox, engines and other parts — retooling that GM helped pay for with state incentives. "I applaud GM for choosing to expand their production in Spring Hill and create nearly 500 new jobs," said Gov. Haslam when GM grew the plant in 2010.
The talk from Tennessee officials also runs contrary to months of lobbying for VW to choose Chattanooga rather than its factory in Puebla, Mexico, to build a new 7-passenger SUV — a decision that could double the plant's workforce. VW chose Chattanooga for its U.S. plant in 2011 after the state approved $500 million in government incentives and tax breaks — at the time, the largest such package for an automaker ever.
A more powerful motivation for the opposition likely comes not from Chattanooga, but Washington. In the 2012 election cycle, the UAW donated some $15 million to political causes and $1.8 million directly to federal candidates, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org. Of that $1.8 million, only one $1,000 check went to a Republican candidate; the rest supported Democrats. During the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, the UAW frequently sparred with Republicans, especially Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, who pushed for deeper wage cuts for UAW workers as part of the rescue.
And for the UAW, which at 382,000 members is still far below the 1.5 million it once held in the 1970s, a win at Volkswagen would give it a symbolic victory in a region where it's never been successful in organizing factories owned by foreign automakers. Like VW, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have several union representatives on their corporate boards in Germany, which could add pressure for them to accept works councils at BMW's plant in South Carolina and Mercedes' plant in Alabama. The UAW lost an organizing vote at Nissan's massive site in Smyrna, Tenn., in 2001, but has quietly kept working that site and others, and its top officials have said the union could not survive long if it didn't organize a foreign automaker.
The bailouts forced the UAW to take job and benefit cuts and accept "two-tier" wages — where automakers not only pay new hires starting wages of $15 an hour or so, but provide fewer benefits and wage hikes for the foreseeable future, a standard now set across automaker plants despite record profits at most major automakers. It so happens that the UAW won its first contract with an automaker 77 years ago today, after a bloody six-week strike against GM in Flint, Mich. VW workers will deal with nothing so dramatic when they vote this week, but as the debate outside the plant shows, the result may be just as historic.