published Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Tennessee legislators battle over Chattanooga VW plant union vote

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Agreement for representation election
Agreement for representation election

State legislators dueled Monday over the pending union vote by workers at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, with state Sen. Bo Watson saying the automaker has conducted a labor campaign that's "unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American."

Watson and state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said potential financial incentives on any factory expansion are at risk if the United Auto Workers is accepted.

However, state Rep. JoAnne Favors termed the incentives remark "coercion and intimidation" of employees.

She and state Rep. Sherry Jones also were critical of "outside groups" attempting to influence VW workers at the plant, who are to vote Wednesday through Friday on whether to accept the UAW as their representatives.

VW, meanwhile, said in a statement that officials look forward to working with the state to support job creation, growth and economic development.

"The facts remain unchanged -- there is no connection between our Chattanooga employees' decision about whether to be represented by a union and the decision about where to build a new product for the U.S. market," the company said.

Meanwhile, other state House Democratic lawmakers and a labor union attorney attacked comments from Republican officials threatening future economic incentive deals.

Nashville attorney George Barrett warned in a news conference at the state Capitol that if state officials carry through with such threats, they could be sued in court.

He said retaliation could be seen as violating both the National Labor Relations Act and provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

However, Watson, R-Chattanooga, said that any additional incentives from the state for expansion will have "a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate" should the union be accepted by the nearly 1,500 workers voting at the plant.

"I do not see members of the Senate having a positive view of Volkswagen because of the manner in which this campaign has been conducted," said Watson, one of the top-ranking members of the body. Some workers have complained VW and the UAW are colluding to steer the election result to the union.

Watson said that other businesses looking at coming to, or expanding in, Tennessee will see the UAW as a negative.

McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he and Watson are letting workers know "the reality on the ground. If we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money and VW wants us to spend more, they have to know how difficult they're making it for us."

  • photo
    State Rep. Gerald McCormick, left, and state Sen. Bo Watson make comments on the UAW issue to a sparse crowd Monday in the auditorium at the state office building on McCallie Avenue.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

But Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she hopes the Legislature would not look unfavorably on VW if workers decide to organize.

"It would be wrong to give the impression we're not supporting their decision to allow these employees some right as to how they're working," she said.

Jones, a Democrat who represents part of Nashville, said the Republican legislators are "threatening employees" with the incentives package.

"I've never seen a member of the General Assembly come out against a company who wanted to allow their members an opportunity to organize," she said.

Other legislators also weighed in.

"In my 20 years on the hill, I've never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company," said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. "When management and workers agree -- as they do at Volkswagen -- the state has no business interfering."

But state House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican, told The Associated Press that she shares concerns about a UAW victory at the plant.

"It would definitely put those [incentives in jeopardy," she said. "That would jeopardize a very good arrangement for Volkswagen to locate here."

VW received more than $500 million in government incentives to locate its $1 billion assembly plant in Chattanooga in 2008. The automaker has said Chattanooga is the front-runner to build a new sport utility vehicle for North America, but it's competing against VW facilities in Mexico.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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