Volkswagen employees will have the final say in whether to unionize, but many other people, some from outside the state, are offering input on the contentious issue. 

And in addition to being an economic issue, it has become a political one. 

“You’ve seen people like Bob Corker throwing out his opinion on the matter-it’s obviously a very political issue, whether we want it to be or not,” said Chris Brooks, a local progressive activist and co-founder of Chattanooga Organized for Action. 

If you go 

What: A public forum, “Chattanooga, UAW and Free Markets,” organized by a local group called Citizens for Free Markets

When: July 18, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Embassy Suites, 2321 Lifestyle Way

For more information: Click here

And Bill Visnic, senior analyst with online automotive shopping and research outlet Edmunds.com, agreed that-especially in the past 10 years-the issue of unionization has developed a political dimension. 

Opposing sides
Tonight, there is a public forum being organized by a group called Citizens for Free Markets, which is being headed up by local tea party leader Mark West.

And leaders of the United Auto Workers Union have been holding local meetings with Volkswagen employees, who are also expected to be at tonight’s forum. 

But West said that the VW unionization issue isn’t solely a tea party issue. So he created the free market group as a coalition of like-minded people, he said. 

He said there are Democrats and Independents in the free market coalition. 

“We may or may not agree on everything, but on this issue, we do,” he said. “We want to inform and educate the community on the dangers of the UAW and the threats they would represent to Volkswagen [and] also to our community and state.”

But Brooks said he isn’t buying what West is saying. 

“I think the name and the goals in themselves are totally disingenuous,” he said. “This is a mask for what they really intend to do, which is put their boots on the throats of workers and keep them from having a voice.”

The free market philosophy, in part, is the idea that the economy is based on supply and demand with little or no government control.

“Ultimately, the marketplace will determine whether the employers are treating its employees fairly and properly,” West said. “If not, the product will fail.”

But some argue that Volkswagen is so successful because of its labor board. 

And Brooks said that West’s group’s free market goals are contradictory in nature because Volkswagen received government incentives to locate here. 

He also said that West has led and worked for several big businesses. 

For example, according to West’s LinkedIn profile, he founded The Wellington Group LLC, which is an assisted living facility development. That business was in six states, and West sold it in 2006, according to his profile. 

The UAW has had an adversarial relationship with companies. And some free market advocates, such as Matt Patterson, who will speak at tonight’s rally, have said that UAW leaders bully politicians and workers. 

West said the UAW left a “trail of destruction” in Detroit.

But Brooks said it’s the people in big business who have the power to oppress others. 

“Mark West is just a mouthpiece for big business,” Brooks said. 

For West, his experience is what makes him think unions aren’t helpful, he said. 

“I know firsthand how it works,” he said. “My different locations and companies didn’t have unions and fared significantly better than the one or two that might have had a union.” 

Community debate?
Volkswagen executives have continuously said the decision to organize is up to the workers. And the National Labor Relations Act prevents employers from interfering with employees’ efforts to create a union.

But with so many fingers pulling and poking at the Volkswagen pie, some people worry that the employees’ true wishes won’t be granted. 

In April, leaders with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is based in Virginia, said they were worried that United Auto Workers officials are pressuring Volkswagen to “cut backroom deals” that would force unwilling employees into the union ranks, according to Nooga.com archives. 

Some members of the community are divided about whether the issue is one that all county residents should be debating.

Chattanooga resident Mike Kelley said via Twitter that he thinks the issue is between the company and its workers and not a community issue. 

And he isn’t sure that unions prevent other businesses from wanting to work in the state, although there has been a trend of auto manufacturers locating in right-to-work states, such as Tennessee, because workers are seemingly less likely to organize here. 

“Unions are already representing many local workers,” Kelley said. “I know of no lack of business for them.” 

But for Brooks and West, one thing they do agree on is that community members have a stake in the decision. Both said the taxpayers have a big investment in the company. 

But West said people should care because of the potential negative effects of the union. And Brooks said it’s about basic human rights for Volkswagen employees.

But the UAW has talked with Volkswagen AG executives about a German-style labor board at the local plant.  

And Brooks said that model is unique to Germany, which is “an industrial machine in Europe” and that it is based on respect and cooperation, not an adversarial relationship. 

But West said there’s no evidence that the UAW will change to become less adversarial. 

“You can predict the future based on the past,” he said. “There’s no indication of the UAW changing. The only way you can believe someone has changed is to see a track record.”

West said he hopes that Volkswagen employees attend and that there is a good amount of discussion. Three speakers are scheduled. 

“We expect a lot of input from folks,” West said. “We don’t expect everyone to come and agree; we do expect a peaceful and interesting forum.” 

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