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Volkswagen Union Opposed By Tennessee Republican Officials

Oct 21, 2013
Originally published on October 22, 2013 10:10 am

When it comes to union organizing at an auto plant, the tension is typically between the workers and the management. But not at Volkswagen in Tennessee. There, the United Auto Workers is attempting to finally unionize the automaker's first foreign-owned plant in the South. And so far, Republican officials are the ones trying to stand in the way.

Just outside Chattanooga, in an idyllic industrial park, surrounded by green hills and even a nature park, Volkswagen built a plant a few years ago. It is still Volkswagen's only car plant in the U.S. and also the only one of VW's plants around the world that hasn't been unionized. The company isn't trying that hard to keep workers from organizing here.

"I just really appreciate the neutrality we're getting from Volkswagen Germany. They have always maintained that it would be our choice," says Lauren Feinauer, an hourly worker in the plant that makes the Passat.

She is just off her shift, a pink bandanna tying back her hair. In her own Volkswagen, she props up UAW signs in the windshield and rear window while she's parked at work. She says the sunshade is to "encourage others in the plant to be comfortable with their support."

Feinauer has helped collect signed union cards from a majority of the 2,000 employees. Some workers, though, want nothing to do with the UAW. They haven't spoken much publicly, but a few have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that Volkswagen is coercing them to organize.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has piped up on their behalf. Asked why he feels that's appropriate, he says, "One of the reasons is, we've had several prospective companies say that decision will impact whether we choose Tennessee or somewhere else."

The Republican governor says a slowdown in relocations to his state may be just the beginning. Companies like the region's right-to-work laws. No one has to be part of a union, so there aren't as many. That means fewer strikes and often lower pay. But the UAW is working the South harder than ever, with other campaigns at a Nissan plant in Mississippi and a Mercedes facility in Alabama.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who previously was the mayor of Chattanooga, suggests Volkswagen will be the "laughingstock" of the business world if it doesn't resist the UAW. He blames the union for the troubles at Chrysler and General Motors.

"I mean, look at Detroit," Corker says. "Look at what's happened. Look at all of the businesses that have left there. I mean, it's been phenomenal. It's sad."

UAW President Bob King has resisted raising his voice. "They get pressured by the right wing of the party. Unfortunately, that's a fear that these politicians have that overcomes common sense," he says. King is not an old-school, hell-raising union leader. In fact, he discourages any characterization of this as a "union fight."

"All the campaigns we have going on currently are being run very differently than we've run campaigns in the past," King says.

No more "us versus them." The pitch is all about cooperation and mutual benefit for workers and the company.

King says Tennessee's top Republicans have a standing offer to meet and discuss the labor movement's role in the 21st century. They haven't taken him up on it.

"You know, the truth is, the governor and the senator, they don't work on the floor at Volkswagen," says Jade Morgan, a single father of two boys who works on the overnight shift in Chattanooga. Morgan points out that both Haslam and Corker are multimillionaires who may never understand.

"It's not anybody who can walk in and work all night. It's tough," he says.

And ultimately, Morgan says, it's those who work in the plant who will get to decide whether the UAW is still worth having around.

Copyright 2013 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wpln.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When it comes to union organizing at an auto plant, the tension is typically between workers and management, but not at Volkswagen in Tennessee. The United Auto Workers is attempting to unionize its first foreign-owned plant in the South. From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports that opposition to the effort isn't coming from management but from state Republican leaders.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Just outside of Chattanooga, in what's really a pretty idyllic industrial park surrounded by green hills, even a nature park, Volkswagen built this plant a few years ago. It is still VW's only car plant in the U.S., and it's Volkswagen's only plant around the world that hasn't been unionized. And the company isn't trying that hard to keep workers from organizing here.

LAUREN FEINAUER: I just really appreciate the neutrality we're getting from Volkswagen Germany. They have always maintained that it would be our choice.

FARMER: Lauren Feinauer is just off her shift, a pink bandanna tying back her hair. She's an hourly worker in the plant, which makes the Passat. In her own Volkswagen, she props up UAW signs in the windshield and rear window while she's parked at work.

FEINAUER: Sunshade, kind of encourage others in the plant to be comfortable with their support.

FARMER: Feinauer has helped collect signed union cards from a majority of the 2,000 employees. There are some workers who want nothing to do with the UAW. They haven't spoken much publicly but a few have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing Volkswagen is coercing them to organize.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has piped up on their behalf, though he's been asked why he feels that's appropriate.

GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM: One of the reasons is we've had several prospective companies say that decision will impact whether we choose Tennessee or somewhere else.

FARMER: The Republican governor says a slowdown in relocations may be just the beginning. Companies like the region's right-to-work laws. No one has to be part of a union, so there aren't as many. That means fewer strikes, often lower pay. But the UAW is working the South harder than ever, with other campaigns at a Nissan plant in Mississippi and a Mercedes facility in Alabama.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, previously the mayor of Chattanooga, suggests Volkswagen will be the laughingstock of the business world if it doesn't resist the UAW. He blames the union for the troubles at Chrysler and GM.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I mean, look at Detroit. Look at what's happened. Look at all the businesses that have left there. I mean, it's been phenomenal. It's sad.

BOB KING: They get pressured by the right wing of the party. Unfortunately, that's a fear that these politicians have that overcomes common sense.

FARMER: UAW president Bob King has resisted raising his voice. He's not an old-school hell-raising union leader. In fact, he discourages any characterization of this as a union fight.

KING: All the campaigns that we have going on currently are being run very differently than we've run campaigns in the past.

FARMER: No more us versus them. The pitch is all about cooperation and mutual benefit for workers and the company. King says Tennessee's top Republicans have a standing offer to meet and discuss the labor movement's role in the 21st century. They haven't taken him up on it.

JADE MORGAN: You know, the truth is, the governor and the senator, they don't work on the floor at Volkswagen.

FARMER: Jade Morgan is a single father of two boys who works on the overnight shift in Chattanooga. Morgan points out that both Haslam and Corker are multimillionaires who may never understand.

MORGAN: It's not anybody who can walk in and work, you know, all night. And it's tough.

FARMER: And ultimately, Morgan says, it's those who work in the plant who will get to decide whether the UAW is still worth having around. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.