As Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga again contemplate whether to organize the brand's only nonunionized plant, Tennessee's new governor delivered a pro-business address while urging workers to reject forming a union — at least indirectly.
Governor's visit strikes anti-union tone in Chattanooga
In a closed-door meeting with workers last week, Republican Gov. Bill Lee said, "There are new companies that all of us would benefit from if they come here because they would bring more high-paying jobs that would elevate the economic activity of our state for everyone. There are a few things that are really important for those companies that are thinking about coming here."
He asked rhetorically: "What are you doing for work force development in your state that makes it an attractive place for us to bring our company? I will tell you, we are going to do something in this state to make sure that we have skilled tradespeople ... to fill the next 3,800 jobs that Volkswagen may ultimately bring to this place if we continue to create the environment in Tennessee that is helpful to them or to any number of other companies that we're already talking to."
A recording of the meeting was posted on the website Labor Notes.
On April 9, workers in the plant filed a petition for what will be their third attempt to form a union there, this time to represent 1,709 employees.
A plantwide vote in 2014 was narrowly defeated, despite an official neutrality agreement with VW, after an aggressive public anti-union campaign led by Lee's predecessor, Gov. Bill Haslam, and third-party anti-labor groups. A smaller unit of 160 skilled trades workers won a vote to unionize with the UAW in 2015, but the skilled trades union did not reach an agreement with the automaker on a first contract.
Lee, who said he "chose to come here on my own today" and was not accompanied by any state or local media, told the VW employees in the meeting that he would not attack those with whom he disagreed.
"I know you all have an important vote that is coming up, that there is differences of opinion around that," Lee said during the 20-minute recording. "I do believe, based on my personal experience working with hundreds of skilled tradespeople over 35 years of working, that every workplace has challenges."
He added: "I also believe that your voice, and you're representing your challenges and the things that you want to see improved in your workplace, my experience is that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you're working for me, that's when" the relationship works best.
The audience on the recording responded with a split chorus of boos, jeers and applause, with one man shouting, "What's the difference between Spring Hill and here?" referencing General Motors' UAW-represented work force in Spring Hill, Tenn.
Lee told the audience, which was growing audibly agitated, "I respect your differences of opinion but just felt compelled to share my opinion." He also said he was "very used to people disagreeing with me."
A date for the vote at the Chattanooga plant had not yet been scheduled. It is the only Volkswagen plant in the world without any form of worker representation, a Volkswagen spokesman confirmed.
In a written statement, Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the UAW in Detroit, said the Tennessee governor should treat workers in Chattanooga as he does those in Spring Hill.
"Governor Lee has embraced UAW GM workers in Spring Hill Tennessee. All Chattanooga workers want is the same rights as Spring Hill workers and every other VW worker in the world. Why should Chattanooga workers be treated differently and why wouldn't the Governor or anyone else want Chattanooga workers to have the same rights as GM Spring Hill workers?" Rothenberg said.
Asked for comment, a spokesman for Volkswagen Group of America emailed a copy of a written statement that said, in part: "Given the challenges the industry is facing, a motivated and skilled workforce is a key pillar for the success or our company. The basis for this is good working conditions for our employees.
"We've heard the concerns that our workers have raised in an open dialogue and we've responded with improvements in working conditions: we've adjusted shift work, we've reduced overtime to have more predictability and we've raised wages. We want to continue that open dialogue also in the future."
The statement also said: "We believe that we can achieve more for the company and our workers by continuing that open dialogue as we have done successfully so far.
"Nevertheless, we respect our workers' right to decide on representation. As a company, and as colleagues, we will respect the decision of our team."
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