Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press A billboard on Amnicola Highway shows where immigrant workers hired by Volkswagen are from.
NASHVILLE — A labor-backed group is stepping up criticism of Volkswagen and prominent Tennessee politicians for what it contends is a failure to ensure the German auto manufacturer hires more local contractors and workers in Chattanooga.
In a direct-mail piece the group’s president says went to about 40,000 Hamilton County voters, Volunteers for Local Hire compares state and local economic incentives provided to VW to the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government gave to banks.
“Look what our brilliant politicians gave Volkswagen,” the mailer states. “$600 million without insisting upon a local hire agreement.”
Companies from Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Germany are helping build the $1 billion plant, the mailer states. In some cases they have used workers from foreign countries, including Mexico and Honduras, according to the mailer.
Volkswagen Group of America general manager of communications, Guenther Scherelis, said in an e-mail that “as a general policy we do not comment on anonymous allegations.”
He said local and Tennessee companies will receive more than $379 million for plant construction. When construction is complete, VW will spend $308 million a year purchasing components from local and Tennessee-based suppliers for the midsize sedan the company will produce, he said.
Preference also is being given to local residents when it comes to hiring the plant’s 1,200-member production work force, according to VW.
“We have hired more than 120 production team members since the beginning of February, which are all from Hamilton County, long before production starts next year,” Mr. Scherelis said. “We will continue to hire throughout the year, and we will continue to give priority to Hamilton County citizens.”
In December, Volunteers for Local Hire took out a full-page ad in the Chattanooga Times Free Press to criticize Volkswagen’s hiring practices.
George Jones, president of Volunteers for Local Hire, said in an interview Friday the group is focused on plant construction.
Recently, he said, the group fired off letters to the state’s gubernatorial candidates, asking them to commit to including “stringent” local-hire provisions when granting incentives. The group also has rented billboards, including one near the VW plan. Mr. Jones declined to say what was spent.
The political-style mailer criticized U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; Gov. Phil Bredesen; and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who is running for governor.
Sen. Corker defended VW and lashed out at Volunteers for Local Hire. He cited the German manufacturer’s recent hiring of Hamilton County production workers, noting, “there will be many more announcements like this to come. I don’t think anyone would be surprised that the D.C. office of the AFL-CIO would send around such an outrageous mailer.”
Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said, “It’s our belief a ‘hire Tennessee only’ law would have prevented companies like Volkswagen from coming to Tennessee.”
J.Ed Marston, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for marketing and communications, said VW “is living up to its commitment to hire and do business locally and in Tennessee.”
The state’s current approach is “drawing billions of new investment and creating thousands of new jobs during the worst economic recession in decades,” he said. “We see no reason to alter this winning strategy.”
Mr. Jones said Volunteers for Local Hire’s backers include the national AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trade Department as well as several other unions and individuals from Tennessee, primarily from Chattanooga.
“Everything that we have said in our ads and in our Web site is true, and we can prove it,” Mr. Jones said. “We have people working on site. It’s just like when we originally charged there were undocumented foreign workers down there.”
Rep. Wamp said, “Any state job training funds or incentive packages should, of course, only be used to help create more jobs in Tennessee. And that’s certainly what Volkswagen is doing. So as long as Tennessee dollars are only being used to help create more Tennessee jobs, I don’t see any need for any new provisions.”
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, said, “What I’d like to do is help these companies hire Tennessee workers. A few weeks ago I announced an initiative that actually connects the fastest growing companies in Tennessee to small businesses for matchmaking opportunities.”
Mr. Jones said use of foreign nationals for construction is “somewhat on the decline.” He attributed that in part to his group’s criticisms. He also noted much of the lower-skilled work has been done and higher-skilled labor is on the rise.
Still, he said, the group remains concerned about upcoming construction at VW supplier plants and future state incentive-driven development projects.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...