Although both sides seemed to expect drama, Thursday night’s public forum about the potential negative impacts of Volkswagen unionization went off peacefully.
Organizer Mark West hired two police officers for the meeting because he said he heard there could be a disruption.
“Then we heard they backed out at the last minute,” he said.
West, who also heads up the local tea party group, and his free market coalition organized a forum to make the case that having the United Auto Workers Union at VW would have negative impacts.
Before the event, UAW officials sent a text to members interested in organizing at the plant, telling them about the meeting, asking union supporters to attend and asking them to wear plain clothing.
UAW organizers later sent a text telling union supporters not to attend.
“Attention: We have discovered tonight’s meeting is a setup to provoke a negative incident. No worker should attend!” the message read.
There were also fliers left on cars at Thursday’s event that alleged that the meeting was an attempt to provoke a conflict for the television cameras.
More than 75 people attended the forum. A few people wore Volkswagen gear, but several declined on-the-record interview requests.
County Commissioners Tim Boyd and Chester Bankston, as well as City Councilman Larry Grohn, attended.
President of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Ron Harr also attended. Earlier this week, Harr declined to comment on the unionization issue-which some people argue will have an impact on the county’s economy.
But in March, he told the Times Free Press that a union isn’t needed because VW workers are already happy and involved.
Three people spoke at the event to make the case against unionization at Volkswagen.
Matt Patterson, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C., nonprofit the Competitive Enterprise Institute, spoke about the UAW’s history in Detroit and said the organization supports liberal groups and President Barack Obama.
He also spoke of the organization’s need to organize in Southern states.
UAW leaders have not responded to Nooga.com’s recent requests for comments on the issue, but the auto union’s President Bob King-who is scheduled to leave that post in June 2014-has said that the union doesn’t have a future unless it can organize workers in Southern states.
Don Jackson, former president of manufacturing for Volkswagen Chattanooga, also spoke at the forum. He reminded the crowd that the comments were his own, not Volkswagen’s.
He said several times how proud he is of what VW has accomplished. He’s had a long career in auto manufacturing. Before VW, he had most recently worked as vice president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Texas, according to Nooga.com archives.
Jackson outlined VW’s accomplishments-250,000 Passats built, millions added to the local economy and strong sales.
He said VW doesn’t need a third party, a union, involved in the business. He said he’s watched unionized plants close.
He’s seen UAW leaders promise higher pay or guarantee a local plant expansion if employees unionize.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he said.
And Bill Visnic, senior analyst with online automotive shopping and research outlet Edmunds.com, recently said he doesn’t buy the idea that a union will make or break the idea of a VW expansion or additional product.
“What the company is going to base its decision on is where that investment is going to pay off most,” he said.
And Volkswagen employees already make more than unionized plants, such as General Motors in Spring Hill. VW employees start out with slightly lower wages but make more after four years.
Jackson said that the UAW is only interested in collecting dues and that-although King is promising a new, less adversarial type of union with the German-style works council-King will retire soon.
And then what?
“What happens after he’s gone?” Jackson said. “Does [that system] stay? Does it really work?”
Dr. Charles Van Eaton, who has taught at Bryan College and Pepperdine University, also spoke. He said he came from a union family and that when one of his aunts found out he voted Republican, she said she hoped he went to hell-highlighting the political nature of this debate.
And he said that if the UAW comes in, all they will do is collect dues, and the Germans will have full control.
“However well-intentioned the UAW is, you have the German works council model, which says to the UAW, ‘Hello, shut up,'” he said.
According to a brochure that circulated in May at the local Volkswagen plant, some employees want union representation.
The brochure had messages from Volkswagen employees who support union representation, which could allow for the formation of a local works council and representation on the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council.
“The best way for us to solve problems in our company and contribute to its success is to have a true voice in the company, and the only way to accomplish this is through forming a strong union in our plant,” Eric DeLacy, who works in the VW paint department, wrote in the brochure.
The brochure featured seven VW employees who endorsed the move toward organization, according to archives.
In 2011, Justin King, who works on the finish/electrical team, went to the annual meeting of the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council as an observer.
According to the brochure, he got to see how other VW plants work and how employees address issues and concerns with employers.
“I was immediately struck by how closely Volkswagen works with the many unions that represent its facilities across the globe,” he wrote, according to the brochure. “Works council members, union representatives, and global HR and management employees worked side by side to solve problems and reach solutions that all their employees would find acceptable.”
And UAW leaders recently spoke with Automotive News about potential VW unionization and why the German model could work.
King; Gary Casteel, UAW Region 8 Director; and Horst Mund, head of the international program at the German industrial union IG Metall; spoke to the publication about the chances of a union forming at the local plant.
“What we can tell you is we’re eager to form a representation model built on collaboration and cooperation that’s consistent with the VW culture and philosophy,” Casteel said when asked for specifics about what kind of union model leaders want to set up in Chattanooga, according to archives.
Updated @ 9:24 a.m. on 7/22/13 for clarity.