Tenn. Workers Vote To Reject Union At VW Plant

Workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga have dealt a blow to organized labor in the South. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to reporter Blake Farmer about the close vote.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Tough night for the United Auto Workers. The union hoped employees at Volkswagen's only U.S. plant might help give them a foothold into foreign-owned auto plants across the South, but VW workers voted no, and Volkswagen had not opposed their efforts. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has been covering the story and joins us now. Blake, thanks for being with us.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Didn't the union think they had the numbers?

FARMER: Yeah, they thought they had the support. In fact, they said they had signed cards from a majority of VW's 1500 or so blue collar workers, but now it appears some folks changed their minds once it came to a secret ballot. Ultimately, you had about 43 votes that made all the difference.

SIMON: As we noted, Volkswagen didn't opposed unionization. What are some of the reasons employees didn't vote for it?

FARMER: Well, you know, you're talking about a right-to-work state here in Tennessee, but more than that there's just not a big union culture here. And frankly, there's a lot of fear, particularly of the UAW. You say those three letters and minds jump to strikes and picket lines. But, you know, you had outside groups that really played on those fears, Washington-based anti-union organizations associated with people like the Koch Brothers and Grover Norquist.

They've had billboards around the plant in Chattanooga suggesting that, you know, the UAW will turn the town into the next Detroit, you know, essentially accusing the union for that city's economic troubles.

SIMON: What was the reaction of some Republican officeholders in Tennessee who had certainly been opposed to the efforts of the UAW to organize in that plant?

FARMER: Well, thrilled is the word Tennessee Senator Bob Corker used. He and Governor Bill Haslam, they've led the charge against the union. They basically said if Volkswagen wasn't going to resist the UAW, they would basically do it for them. Republicans essentially said the UAW would drive business out of the region or at least drive up the cost of doing business in the South.

SIMON: And I believe Senator Corker said that if, in fact, workers rejected the union, Volkswagen would wind up rewarding them by expanding the plant and build a new SUV in Tennessee. Any idea if these statements were very persuasive?

FARMER: Well, the UAW thinks so. Officials say support turned on these recent comments. You even had state lawmakers recently jumping in, saying they would have a hard time approving any more government incentives for a unionized plant. Last night, UAW president Bob King said such political interference, in his view, has never happened before.

BOB KING: All these people who thought they were going to come in and threaten workers and threaten the company to me is outrageous, and I guess America's going to have to decide, this country's going to have to decide, are we really going to allow workers to decide for themselves whether they want representation or not? Are we going to allow those kinds of threats and intimidation?

SIMON: Blake, where does the UAW go from here?

FARMER: Well, it's a setback for sure. A lot of people thought this was going to be Bob King's crowning achievement before leaving office as president. You know, the UAW is talking about its options, but it's unclear there are any legitimate challenges to be made for this vote and they still have the beginnings of campaign efforts at other - a few other plants around the south, but you know, if they can't get a majority when a company like VW is so supportive, it's hard to imagine them having more luck when a company might put up a fight.

SIMON: Blake Farmer at member station WPLN in Nashville. Thanks so much.

FARMER: You're welcome.

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