published Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Corker: VW talks with UAW over Chattanooga plant 'incomprehensible'

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    Workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga may soon vote on whether to become members of the UAW.
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Volkswagen would become a "laughingstock" if it goes through with a deal to have the United Auto Workers represent workers at its Tennessee plant, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Tuesday.

The Tennessee Republican told The Associated Press in a phone interview that he was dismayed when VW last week sent a letter to employees regarding its discussion with the UAW about creating a German-style works council at the Chattanooga plant.

"For management to invite the UAW in is almost beyond belief," Corker said. "They will become the object of many business school studies - and I'm a little worried could become a laughingstock in many ways - if they inflict this wound."

Corker, who played a large role in persuading Volkswagen to build its lone U.S. assembly plant in the city where he was once mayor, said he hopes the company pulls back from its decision to engage in talks with the UAW.

"We've talked to management, and to me it's beyond belief that they've allowed this to go that far and displayed this kind of naivety that the UAW is somehow different than they were years ago," Corker said.

Also, in a phone interview with Reuters, Corker said U.S. executives at the plant were "forced" by a German board member to sign a letter disclosing the UAW's efforts to organize the factory, a move that created tension within the company. Corker said the letter was driven by the board member in Germany and not the U.S. executives.

VW's German board includes IG Metall union members who would like to see the UAW organize the Chattanooga plant and bring it in line with Volkswagen's other major factories around the world which all have union representation.

"There was a lot of dissension within the company," the Republican senator said. "I don't think it, I know it. Candidly, one board member got very involved and forced this letter to go out. "I know that it's created tremendous amounts of tension within the company," he said, adding that "many people thought that this was a dishonest letter."

Gary Casteel, the UAW's regional director in the Southeast who is based in Tennessee, told Reuters that Corker's views on how the UAW operates today as "spoken from a position of ignorance." He said VW had become one of the world's strongest automakers through its policy of co-determination, where labor has a voice at all its wholly owned plants except Chattanooga.Casteel added the UAW was ready at any time to sit down and discuss the issues with Corker or Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, another opponent of the UAW.

VW last week sent a letter to plant employees, reaching out to them after the company and UAW members had confidential talks in Germany advancing earlier discussions about setting up a German-style works council labor board at the factory. VW said in the letter that a works council "can only be realized together with a trade union."VW plant managers added, "Every single team member takes his or her own decision and this will be respected by us."

The UAW said in a statement that the meeting focused on the appropriate paths, consistent with American law, for arriving at both Volkswagen recognition of UAW representation at its Chattanooga facility and establishment of a works council.

"We look forward to future discussions," the UAW said. "Volkswagen is a company that has extensive experience with union representation and the UAW believes the role of the union in the 21st century is to create an environment where both the company and workers succeed."

Also last week, Gov. Haslam told the Times Free Press that the UAW discussions had hindered business recruitment efforts in the state. He said he has had "several folks recently say that if the UAW comes, that would dampen our enthusiasm for Tennessee."

The Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker has faced pressure from labor representatives on its supervisory board, who have called it unfair for the company to deal with organized labor at every one of its major facilities around the world except for its United States plant.

Some experts have disputed whether union representation is a requirement to a works council in the U.S., and politicians such as Corker have suggested the UAW should be left out of a works council at the plant.

"There's plenty of unions other than the UAW," he told the AP. "Why would they choose one that has created such a mentality in these plants of us-versus-them?"

Corker said the Southeast would become less attractive to foreign automakers if the UAW gains a foothold, adding that he worries that Volkswagen would become less competitive if the UAW represents workers at the plant

"It's still incomprehensible to me that they would be where they are," he said. "I'm discouraged and I do hope they will pull back from this."

A Volkswagen spokesman declined to comment.

Corker and the UAW have been at odds since he pushed for wage and benefit concessions for union workers as part of the government bailout of automakers in 2009. Corker maintains that his role in the discussions helped the auto industry emerge from the economic crisis in stronger shape.

Many union workers at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., blamed Corker for the facility being idled during the company's bankruptcy, and argue that contract negotiations ensured that auto assembly was restarted with jobs that would have otherwise gone to Mexico.

Corker said Tuesday that while he's pleased the GM plant is back to producing vehicles, he's concerned about the work environment in Spring Hill.

"I have never witnessed anything like I have seen down at Spring Hill. And to see management genuflect to the UAW," he said. "It's not a healthy situation."

Entry-level workers at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga earn $15 an hour, which is similar to the starting income of UAW workers at GM, though the current contract imposes a cap of 25 percent of workers making that wage by 2015.

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