| CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. Feb 14 Workers at Volkswagen
AG's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had just a few
hours left on Friday to cast their ballots in a vote that could
decide whether the once-powerful United Auto Workers union will
gain a foothold in the foreign-owned auto industry that has
sprung up in the American South.
The vote to allow workers' union representation at the
Chattanooga plant will have wide-reaching implications for the
auto industry in the South, where most foreign-owned plants
employ nonunion labor, and for the UAW, which could use a
victory to reverse a decades-long downward spiral.
The three-day vote by VW's 1,550 hourly workers at its sole
U.S. plant is scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m. EST (0130 GMT
Saturday). The results could be announced soon after that.
Voting turnout was heaviest on Wednesday, according to local
workers, with an estimated 1,000 employees casting ballots. On
Friday, when the plant normally is shut down for weekly
maintenance, many of the maintenance workers were expected to
cast their paper ballots, all of which will be counted
individually after the vote closes.
For the UAW, whose U.S. membership has plummeted by 75
percent since 1979, a win could open the door to organizing
other foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S. South, the
cornerstone of UAW President Bob King's strategy.
A loss could accelerate the decline in membership, now at
just under 400,000 from a peak of 1.5 million. It also would
reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW cannot make
significant inroads in a region that historically has been
steadfastly anti-union. Virtually every state in the U.S. South
has passed right-to-work legislation that gives workers the
choice of joining a union and paying union dues.
For VW, the stakes also are high. The German automaker
invested $1 billion in the Chattanooga plant, which began
building Passat mid-size sedans in April 2011, after being
awarded more than $577 million in state and local incentives.
VW executives have said a new seven-passenger crossover
vehicle, due in 2016 and known internally as CrossBlue, could be
built at either Chattanooga or the company's sprawling Puebla
complex in Mexico, depending on the incentives offered at either
VW executives also have said that the bulk of the $7 billion
that the company is investing in North America over the next
four years is targeted for Mexico, including a new $1.3 billion
Audi assembly plant.
Over the past week, however, several Republican politicians
from Tennessee have added their voices to the growing anti-union
chorus, implying that further subsidies to attract additional VW
investment in Chattanooga could be threatened by a UAW victory.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and former
mayor of Chattanooga, told Reuters on Thursday that he is "very
certain that if the UAW is voted down," the automaker will
announce new investment in the plant "in the next couple weeks,"
implying that a vote in favor of the union is a vote against the
Earlier in the week, State Senator Bo Watson, another
Tennessee Republican, said a UAW win at Chattanooga could derail
any future incentives the state might provide to VW.
Prodded by IG Metall, the powerful German union that has
several representatives on VW's supervisory board, the company
has maintained what it calls a "neutral" stance toward the
union, although the company agreed to permit UAW representatives
into the plant to address workers.
Reached at midmorning on Friday, a member of the anti-union
Southern Momentum group said that both union and anti-union
workers were just waiting for the vote results.
"We're quiet. The union guys are quiet," said Mike Burton.
"There are no politicians making statements, nothing."