Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will decide Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union. The UAW says it has signatures of more than half of the plant workers on cards supporting representation. / Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- One of the most monumental labor votes of the past few decades is under way here Friday.
By late Friday, about 1,550 Volkswagen employees will have cast their votes on whether to accept representation by the United Auto Workers labor union, which has nearly 400,000 active members.
Labor leaders say a "yes" vote is critical to the union's long-term prospects. If successful, this would be the first victory for organized labor inside a foreign automaker's U.S. operations in the South.
For the UAW to grow, it must make inroads with foreign manufacturers with plants in the United States; most of those operate in the South. A "yes" vote in Chattanooga could provide momentum for organizing at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, a BMW plant in South Carolina and possibly a Nissan plant in Mississippi.
But critics of the UAW - some of whom have poured millions into anti-union efforts in recent weeks - say a "yes" vote will potentially harm the South's ability to build a thriving auto industry. Many Tennessee politicians - including Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker - have expressed grave concern about the UAW's organizing efforts. Some have even raised the prospects of withholding future incentives from Volkswagen as it considers expanding in the state.
The Chattanooga plant is a finalist for the production of VW's new crossover SUV, which could mean millions in new state investments and hundreds of new jobs. Corker says he has been told that a "no" vote will bring the new line to Tennessee, but VW officials are adamant that the vote outcome will not affect the expansion decision.
The automaker has remained neutral, saying only that it wants to create a German-style works council that includes input from management and employees. It's a structure used in its plants around the world. But in the U.S., workers must be represented by a union to create a council.
Whatever the outcome, it's clear that many will be waiting for the National Labor Relation Board's announcement of the vote tally sometime early next week.
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