Tenn's Corker Opposes UAW for Volkswagen Plant

Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014 02:06 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker says he's not so much against unions moving in to represent workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen AG plant but the United Auto Workers in particular that he does not want to see come in.

Some 1,550 workers at the plant are voting through Friday whether to accept the UAW to represent them. If they approve the move, the plant would become only the second foreign-owned car factory in the United States, the first in the South, to be represented by the labor union. 

But outside groups are fighting the move, using billboard ads and editorials to build opposition to the union, and Corker told The Washington Post  in a interview that he does not want the UAW to come to his state and bring the problems that he says destroyed Detroit's automobile industry.

Corker said he does not have a problem if Volkswagen forms a works council, similar to those it has at other factories. The senator also said he has had great respect for the company since its earliest days in Chattanooga, where he attracted VW to town while mayor.

But, he said, labor relations differ in the United States, with labor unions, and in Volkswagen's home country in Germany.

"There's some question as to how a works council can be set up in the U.S., and there are various opinions on both sides of the spectrum," Corker said. "One says you have to have a union, one says you don't. But we in no way have been negative relative to the works council. We've even told Volkswagen that, 'Why don't you guys create your own union within the plant, if you feel like that is something that is necessary to fully implement this in a way you see fit.'"

The vote this week at the plant is under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board and follows an agreement between the UAW and Volkswagen to negotiate the formation of the German-style works council, which is common at most large German companies to resolve labor disputes.

Corker said he does not want the UAW involved, however, because he has "seen the effect that they've had on companies" in Detroit and in Tennessee.

"I know the person who's organizing the Chattanooga plant," Corker said. "I've watched him operate personally within the [General Motors] Spring Hill plant. I've seen the Spring Hill plant start, stop, and fail, lay off, and start again, and fail, and lay off. And we have a plant right down the road, a Nissan facility, that's been one of the best operators in the world, a few counties over in Tennessee."

The GM plant was idled in 2009 during the worst of the auto industry collapse, with 2,000 workers being laid off. However, GM brought Spring Hill back online in 2011, and jobs have been growing at the plant since, The Post reports.

Corker said companies change when they are involved with the UAW.

"Volkswagen is an exciting place to be, and there's lots of teamwork," Corker said. "And they may decide to form a union themselves. But the UAW, even if you read the materials they've put out over the last 30 days, it's about confrontation, it's about fighting. It's the antithesis of how you'd describe a works council."

Corker said that his community has worked hard to get where it is. "We understand; this is not hyperbole or rhetoric. We are already having some difficulties with recruitment as this whole issue has been raised."

He also said UAW membership has been "tremendously declining," and organizing Volkswagen "is all about money for them. They feel like, if they can get up under the hood with a company in the South, then they can make progress in other places."

Corker insisted that works councils are not illegal, and he believes it's "easier to create a German-style works council without a union."

In addition, Corker said, Volkswagen's wages are higher than those negotiated through UAW contracts.

Meanwhile, Corker said, there has been a "tremendous migration" away from Detroit over the last couple of decades.

"It's really a sad story," Corker said. "Nobody would wish what's happened in Detroit on any community. There's no question that the UAW has had a negative impact on the big three automakers."

In addition, Corker said the supplier networks are beginning to get nervous over the possibility of the UAW making inroads into Tennessee and the rest of the South.

The Volkswagen vote is becoming one of the most closely watched union pushes in a generation, reports Automotive News, and testing UAW President Bob King's goal to win over the foreign-owned auto plants operating in the South.

The vote is also occurring as Volkswagen solicits subsidies to build an SUV model in either Chattanooga or Mexico.

Corker told reporters in a news conference Tuesday that he predicts the union will be on "good behavior" for three to five years, but that it's mainly concerned with growing its membership, and it will be detrimental to the community.

The battle is also heating up at the state government level. On Monday, two Republican state lawmakers said VW would have difficulty obtaining state incentive money if workers unionize. Gary Casteel, the director of the UAW's Tennessee-based Region 8, accused the politicians of interfering with workers' rights to organize, calling their words a threat.

"It's sad that . . . some Tennessee politicians are threatening the economic well-being of communities and businesses, just because workers want to have a voice in the future of Volkswagen in Chattanooga," Casteel said.

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