CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — When the ballots are counted Friday night at a Tennessee Volkswagen factory, the totals will mean more than just a decision on representation by the United Auto Workers union.
At stake is the future of the union and perhaps organized labor in the United States as the UAW makes a crucial move toward recruiting in the south, an area with a growing manufacturing base that traditionally has spurned its advances.
This time, the union appears to have more going for it because Volkswagen has tacitly endorsed its efforts. But that's also why a loss would signal little hope of organizing other foreign-owned plants.
"It is set up for the union to win," said Art Schwartz, a retired General Motors labor negotiator who now is a consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich. "They should win if everything goes right."
About 1,500 workers who make the Passat midsize car at the VW plant in Chattanooga have been voting for the past three days, after being bombarded with messages about the advantages and perils of siding with the union.
Anti-union groups warned that a vote for the UAW could bring a fate similar to Detroit, with rising costs leading to shuttered factories. Republican politicians volunteered their concerns that the union would make the region less competitive for manufacturing jobs. Some have said a union would jeopardize state incentives offered to VW to build a new SUV at the plant.
The union, however, says workers need a voice in how the plant is run. Officials point out that Detroit automakers and workers have benefited from having a union. Workers, they say, are getting big profit-sharing checks under contracts that tie their pay to company earnings.
A win Friday night would give the UAW its first foothold at a southern plant owned by a foreign automaker. But a victory doesn't guarantee that other so-called transplant companies, with a dozen or so assembly plants in the south, will automatically follow.
A loss would be devastating. The union has staked its future on being able to organize southern plants and bring their wages closer to UAW-represented factories in the north.
Volkswagen officially stayed neutral on the UAW, but it allowed union organizers into the plant to give sales pitches. Labor interests make up half of the supervisory board at VW in Wolfsburg, Germany, and they've asked why the Chattanooga plant is the only one without formal worker representation. VW wants a German-style "works council" in Chattanooga to give employees a say over working conditions. But the company says U.S. law won't allow it without an independent union.
"Why would I turn down a gift that's been offered to me by my company to have a voice, have a vote in my company?" asked Chris Brown, 38, a line worker at the Chattanooga plant from Dalton, Ga.
German automakers Daimler AG, which has a Mercedes-Benz factory near Tuscaloosa, Ala., and BMW AG, with an SUV plant in Greer, S.C., have unions and works councils representing employees at their home factories. Their U.S. plants likely would be the UAW's next targets, although so far the companies haven't welcomed the UAW like Volkswagen did.
"The fact that they win doesn't mean the floodgates are going to open up for organizing," said Schwartz.
Organizing efforts at Japanese automakers' plants could be even more difficult than at the German-run factories. Workers at Nissan, Honda and Toyota have turned away the UAW in the past.
Still, a VW win would be a victory for organized labor in the U.S., giving the UAW momentum as it tries to recruit new members, said Schwartz. The union was once a huge political and social force in America — it had 1.5 million members in 1979. But membership eroded from there and now stands at around 383,000, up slightly from the Great Recession.
Even with a win, the UAW still faces hurdles at the Chattanooga plant. Under Tennessee right-to-work labor laws, workers could still refuse to join the union. That would reduce the amount of dues collected and give the union less clout with the company at bargaining time.
"In a right-to-work law state, it's going to be more difficult to organize the workers even if an election is won," said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
A UAW loss would be a huge setback for the nation's organized labor movement because it will be quarantined mainly in northern states where it's well-established, but where the manufacturing base is shrinking.
"It would be a blow to their efforts to organize any of the transplants," said Schwartz. "If they can't win this one, what can they win?"
UAW President Bob King, in a 2011 speech to workers, said the union has no long-term future if it can't organize the southern plants.
But Schwartz said the UAW will remain a powerful force with the Detroit automakers even with a VW loss.
Krisher reported from Detroit.