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VW counters Corker, says new product not linked to UAW vote

Corker: "I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga."

UPDATED: 2/13/14 2:41 pm ET - adds clarification

CHATTANOOGA (Reuters) -- Volkswagen AG, in a brief but bluntly worded statement on Thursday, said a vote this week on UAW representation at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant would have no bearing on whether it will build a new crossover vehicle there.

The statement was contrary to U.S. Senator Bob Corker's announcement on Wednesday that he had been "assured" that if workers at the factory reject UAW representation, the company would reward the plant with a new product to build.

"There is no connection between our Chattanooga employees' decision about whether to be represented by a union and the decision about where to build a new product for the U.S. market," said Frank Fischer, chairman and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga.

Corker, a Tennessee Republican, made the assertion, which ran counter to previous public statements by VW, on the first day of a three-day secret ballot election of blue-collar workers on UAW representation.

On Thursday, Corker issued a second statement, saying his information is better than that of Fischer, the top-ranked VW official at Chattanooga.

"Believe me, the decisions regarding the Volkswagen expansion are not being made by anyone in management at the Chattanooga plant and we are also very aware Frank Fischer is having to use old talking points when he responds to press inquiries," said Corker. "After all these years and my involvement with Volkswagen, I would not have made the statement I made yesterday without being confident it was true and factual."

Corker has long opposed the union, which he says hurts economic and job growth in Tennessee, a claim that UAW officials dispute.

"I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga," Corker said on Wednesday.

He did not say with whom he held the conversations.

Voter turnout was said to be heavy on Wednesday, but snow on Thursday in Chattanooga may affect how many vote, according to both pro- and anti-UAW Volkswagen workers.

The plant's Thursday morning shift was canceled since too few workers showed up, while the night shift on Wednesday was also canceled, according to VW workers. VW officials could not be reached to confirm the cancellation of the shifts.

The plant produces the mid-size Passat sedan from Monday through Thursdays and is normally closed on Friday.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Republican lawmakers said if the UAW is voted into the Chattanooga plant, Volkswagen could lose millions of dollars in state incentives. In order to entice Volkswagen to build its new U.S. plant in Corker's hometown of Chattanooga, the state gave it about $580 million in incentives.

Corker was instrumental in lobbying Volkswagen to put the plant, which opened in 2011, in Chattanooga. Early meetings with Volkswagen officials from Germany were held at his home.

Democratic Tennessee legislators, who are in the minority, said the Republicans' statements were an intrusion into private matters of a company and were harmful to the state's relationship with Volkswagen.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated a description of the VW Passat. It is a mid-size sedan.

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