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February 16, 2014

UAW drive falls short amid culture clash in Tennessee

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The failure of the United Auto Workers to unionize employees at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee underscores a cultural disconnect between a labor-friendly German company and anti-union sentiment in the South.

The multiyear effort to organize Volkswagen's only U.S. plant was defeated on a 712-626 vote Friday night amid heavy campaigning on both sides.

Workers voting against the union said while they remain open to the creation of a German-style "works council" at the plant, they were unwilling to risk the future of the Volkswagen factory that opened to great fanfare on the site of a former Army ammunition plant in 2011.

"Come on, this is Chattanooga, Tennessee," said worker Mike Jarvis, who was among the group in the plant that organized to fight the UAW. "It's the greatest thing that's ever happened to us."

Jarvis, who hangs doors, trunk lids and hoods on cars said workers also were worried about the union's historical impact on Detroit automakers and the many plants that have been closed in the North, he said.

"Look at every company that's went bankrupt or shut down or had an issue," he said. "What is the one common denominator with all those companies? UAW. We don't need it."

Pocketbook issues were also on opponents' minds, Jarvis said. Workers were suspicious that Volkswagen and the union might have already reached "cost containment" agreements that could have led to a cut in their hourly pay rate to that made by entry-level employees with the Detroit Three automakers, he said.

The concern, he said, was that the UAW "was going to take the salaries in a backward motion, not in a forward motion," said Jarvis, who makes around $20 per hour as he approaches his three-year anniversary at the plant.

Southern Republicans were horrified when Volkswagen announced it was engaging in talks with the UAW last year. Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who has been among the UAW's most vocal critics, said at the time that Volkswagen would become a "laughingstock" in the business world if it welcomed the union to its plant.

Volkswagen wants to create works council at the plant, which represents both blue collar and salaried workers. But to do so under U.S. law requires the establishment of an independent union. Several workers who cast votes against the union said they still support the idea of a works council — they just don't want to have to work through the UAW.

Volkswagen's German management is accustomed to unions and works councils, which have been ingrained in its operations since the end of World War II. And labor interests that make up half of the company's supervisory board have raised concerns that the Chattanooga plant is alone among the automaker's major factories worldwide without formal worker representation.

But in Tennessee there's little recent history of prominent manufacturing unions, and people are suspicious of them.

"This is an area of the country where union density is low," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.

Still, because of the close margin, Shaiken believes the union would have won without statements from Corker and other Republican politicians that played to anti-union sentiment and cast doubt on the plant's future with union representation. Those statements, he said, influenced spouses, relatives and neighbors of as well as workers at the plant.

"You've got wives, husbands, family members. They hear these threats and they say, 'What are you doing here? This is a risk,'" Shaiken said.

UAW opponent Sean Moss, who works in the plant's assembly shop as a quality inspector, said he began hearing more from colleagues with concerns about the union in the last days before the vote.

"I'm sure they probably had influence at home, from other members of the family that work, other people that have been through unions who did not have a good experience," he said.

He said the UAW's negative reputation resonated with workers at the plant.

"I think their history was probably the biggest part," he said. "People sat back and looked at what they've done with regard to the last 30 years."

"The thought was we're doing fine without the unions here, so why start now?" he said.

As for the UAW's next step, leaders said they're still evaluating their next steps. Bob King, the union president, wasn't prepared to say after the vote whether the union would try to take legal action due to what he called unprecedented outside interference.

Devin Gore, an assembly line worker who favored the union, said he was too upset to talk about the loss Saturday. He's not giving up on one day being represented by the UAW.

"I'm going to be walking into the plant with a UAW shirt on come Monday," he said. "I don't think we'll stop trying until we get it."

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