By Bernie Woodall
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (Reuters) - If the United Auto Workers wins this week's historic election at Volkswagen's three-year-old Chattanooga factory, the union could use the victory as a springboard to organize other foreign-owned plants in the South and revive its waning influence on the U.S. labor movement.
The UAW appears to have its best chance of a major victory in 30 years. But its bid to represent VW's 1,550 hourly workers faces fierce resistance from local politicians and national conservative groups and is too close to call on the eve of a three-day secret-ballot election that closes Friday night.
A defeat could scuttle the 400,000-member union's latest attempt to stem a decades-long decline in membership, revenue and influence. It would reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW is unable to overcome the region's deep antipathy toward organized labor.
"The labor movement is looking for big victories to show its relevance," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University's Graduate School of Management in Worcester, Massachusetts. If the UAW loses the vote in Chattanooga, he said, "it will look like a union of yesterday: a once-powerful organization that has outlived its usefulness and no longer (has) appeal to the new workforce."
If the union wins, VW would institute a German-style works council, with members elected by plant employees, to make key decisions about how the facility is run. The UAW would bargain over wages and benefits, but cede to the council traditional bargaining prerogatives such as work rules and training.
VW has been publicly neutral on the vote. But when the German automaker last week announced an agreement with the UAW to coordinate their messages to workers, the union received a significant boost it has not had in previous, unsuccessful organizing efforts in the South.
The UAW must persuade employees like 22-year-old Anthony Didona, who works in the plant's body shop and fears the union would throw a wrench into a system that works well. He plans to vote 'no' and thinks a majority of his colleagues will, too.
"It seems like most people in the body shop don't want a union," Didona said. "From what I've heard, assembly is 50-50 and the paint shop is, too."
Former Teamster Edward Hunter, 42, sees the existence of the middle class at stake, and he will vote for the union.
If the UAW loses this week's vote, "In another year, if they want to try again, I'm certainly going to support" another election, he said.
UAW President Bob King's "whole strategy is on the line," said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research.
McAlinden said King, who will step down this summer, has focused more attention than his predecessors on forging alliances with overseas labor organizations such as Germany's powerful IG Metall, which holds several seats on VW's supervisory board and helped bring VW management and the UAW together.
King also has said the UAW's future depends on organizing foreign-owned plants in the South, including Daimler AG's 20-year-old Mercedes-Benz factory in Vance, Alabama.
If the UAW wins in Chattanooga, outside labor experts expect its next target will be Mercedes-Benz and its Vance plant.
"My perception is that Mercedes-Benz has not been as welcoming as Volkswagen," said labor adviser Arthur Schwartz. He noted that "IG Metall does not have the same relationship with Mercedes-Benz as they do with Volkswagen," and thus may have less clout in Alabama.
IG Metall said it would not comment until after the Chattanooga vote is concluded.
In Germany, Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said on Tuesday he was neutral on whether there should be UAW representation at the Vance plant, which opened in 1997 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
"In the U.S., there is the principle of neutrality and we stick to this," Zetsche said. "Depending on how the vote goes in Chattanooga, it may have an influence on other plants. We will have to wait and see."
According to CAR's McAlinden, Mercedes workers at the Vance plant are among the highest-paid U.S. assembly workers.
The last big vote at a Southern auto plant, in 2001 at Nissan Motor Co's plant outside Nashville, went horribly wrong for the union. King, then a UAW vice president in charge of organizing, expressed confidence in the final days leading up to the election, but the union lost by a 2-1 margin.
Ahead of the VW vote in Chattanooga, UAW and anti-UAW workers this week were at the plant exits handing out leaflets, with anti-union representatives also giving away T-shirts.
Josh Graham, a 46-year-old team leader, said he planned to vote against the union: "I have a very negative opinion of the UAW. The reason we are down here is because of (the foreign auto companies) wanting to avoid the unions."
But if the UAW wins the vote, he added, "I'll probably join."
If the UAW is victorious, even its supporters will not be required to join the union because Tennessee, like many of its neighbors, is a right-to-work state. That means membership is voluntary even if workers have voted in favor of union representation.
It also means the UAW could face a second wrenching campaign to convince VW workers to join the union and pay dues, which are equal to two hours of monthly regular pay and could rise to 2.5 hours later this year.
(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach in Granada, Spain, Ed Taylor in Frankfurt and Jan Schwartz in Hamburg; Editing by Dan Grebler)