Republicans threaten to end VW incentives if workers vote for union in Chattanooga (AP story; news releases)

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican lawmakers in Tennessee on Monday threatened that the state could turn off the spigot of incentives for Volkswagen if workers at the German automaker’s plant decide this week to approve union representation.

State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson in a news conference in Chattanooga called the United Auto Workers campaign at the plant “un-American.”

“Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate,” he said.

About 1,500 out of the 2,500 employees at the plant are eligible to vote in the three-day union election that begins Wednesday. Volkswagen announced earlier this year that a new SUV model will be built either in Chattanooga or in Mexico.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Republican governor last year insisted that state incentives are not contingent on the union being rejected at the plant.

But state House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican and close Haslam ally, told The Associated Press on Monday 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.”

“And I hate that, because I want Volkswagen here, we’re so proud and honored to have them here,” she said. “But unionization is a huge setback for our state economically.”

Volkswagen received a more than $500 million incentive package as part of its decision to build the plant in Chattanooga in 2008.

The UAW vote would be the first step toward creating a German-style “works council” at the plant, which would represent both blue and white collar employees on issues such as working conditions and plant efficiency, but not wages or benefits.

Under Tennessee law, workers would not have to join the union to be represented.

German law gives labor representatives half the seats on the Volkswagen’s supervisory board, where some powerful members have raised concerns about the Chattanooga plant being alone among the company’s large factories without formal labor representation.

The UAW vote would be the first step toward creating a German-style “works council” at the plant which represents both blue and white collar employees on issues such as working conditions and plant efficiency, but not wages or benefits.

Under Tennessee law, workers would not have to join the union to be represented.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who last year said Volkswagen would become a “laughingstock” for entering negations with the UAW, had announced last week that he would curtail public commentary on the process while the election was underway.

But in response to what he called the UAW’s attempts to use his position to try to silence other critics, the former Chattanooga mayor said he will hold a news conference Tuesday to “ensure my position is clear.”

Note: Here are a couple of partisan caucus news releases on the matter.

News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
NASHVILLE, Tenn, (February 10, 2014) — The Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Tennessee’s Senate Commerce and Labor Committee today expressed concern regarding the United Auto Workers (UAW) upcoming vote in Chattanooga, saying a vote for organized labor would harm Tennessee’s reputation as a business-friendly state and reverse the state’s recent progress in automobile-related job growth. Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Vice-Chairman Mark Green (R-Clarksville) said the General Assembly has worked in concert with Governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam for the past several years to move forward policies to support Tennessee’s competitive standing in growing and expanding new and better paying jobs in the state. The lawmakers said that pending decisions of VW employees are of statewide interest at a pivotal time when Tennessee stands currently as a national leader in job creation.

“We greatly value our auto workers, both in Middle Tennessee and in Southeast Tennessee,” said Senator Johnson, a businessman whose legislative district is home to the General Motors Spring Hill plant and Nissan’s North America headquarters. “Our communities are very similar with great neighborhoods, schools that focus on achievement and a local economy that is envied by many. The automotive industry is a very important part of the quality of life we enjoy.”

“As Chattanooga workers vote on the United Auto Workers presence, it is a decision that transcends just one community,” he added. “There is tremendous competition for job growth among states. A vote for organized labor would impede our daily efforts to benefit Tennessee families as we compete nationally in job growth. I ask that Chattanooga lead to honor Tennessee’s competitive spirit so we can continue moving our state’s job growth forward. Chattanooga workers, we don’t need the UAW in our state.”

“In business, reputation means a lot,” added Senator Green, who is a practicing physician and businessman who represents the more rural Clarksville region that competes with industry across the state-line of Kentucky. “Tennessee has developed a reputation of a top location for families and businesses because of the lower cost of living, commitment to an educated workforce and folks keeping more of our wages by holding taxes low.”

“Volkswagen chose our state and your community for important reasons: Chattanooga workers have a great reputation of a great work ethic and make an excellent product. That reputation has been yours without the United Auto Workers,” he continued. “The free market that VW chose in our state produces competition, empowers employees far more than a labor union, and keeps bringing jobs to Tennessee.”

The United Auto Workers vote is scheduled for Wednesday, February 12 through Friday, February 14 at the Volkswagen site in Chattanooga.

News release from House-Senate Democratic Caucus
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Democratic lawmakers are blasting comments from Republican officials who are threatening to pull future economic incentive deals for Volkswagen if the employees agree to adopt a workers council supported by the company.

“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. Words have consequences and these type of threats could have a ruinous effect on our state’s relationships with not just Volkswagen, but all employers.”

According to a report by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Republican State Senator Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga) said that future economic incentives for Volkswagen may not be supported by the legislature if workers vote to accept UAW representation this week.

“This is an outrageous and unprecedented effort by state officials to violate the rights of employers and workers,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “Republicans are basically threatening to kill jobs if workers exercise their federally protected rights to organize. When the company says they don’t have a problem with it, what right does the state have to come in and say they can’t do it?”

Voting will take place at Volkswagen starting on Wednesday, February 12th and ending on Friday, February 14th on whether to allow the United Auto Workers to represent workers at the plan. Volkswagen has said they are committed to long-term investment in Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant whether or not workers vote to organize.