Workers at Volkswagen’s three-year-old factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., will vote this week on union representation in a move that could serve as a springboard for both the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the wider labor movement to revive its waning influence in the South.
The UAW appears to have its best chance of a major victory in 30 years. But its bid to represent VW's 1,550 hourly workers faces fierce resistance from local politicians and national conservative groups, and is too close to call on the eve of a three-day secret-ballot election that closes Friday night.
There is a lot riding on the union vote.
A defeat could scuttle the 400,000-member union's latest attempt to stem a decades-long decline in membership, revenue and influence. It would reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW is unable to overcome the South's deep opposition toward organized labor.
"The labor movement is looking for big victories to show its relevance," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University's Graduate School of Management in Worcester, Mass.
If the UAW loses the vote in Chattanooga, he said, "it will look like a union of yesterday: a once powerful organization that has outlived its usefulness and no longer (has) appeal to the new workforce."
If the union wins, VW would institute a German-style works council, with members elected by plant employees to make key decisions about how the facility is run. The UAW would bargain over wages and benefits, but cede to the council traditional bargaining prerogatives such as work rules and training.
John Wright, an employee at the plant, told Al Jazeera that he supports the move to unionize at the VW plant because he feels he has no voice in key decisions made by management.
"The works council here locally would help us have more communication, more open communication, with management for improving anything on the lines or anything that employees may discern is important to them," he said.
But not every employee is in favor of unionizing.
"I feel in my heart they are ramming this down my throat," said Mike Jarvis, who works in the plant’s body shop. Jarvis told Al Jazeera he thinks the UAW is making too many promises, and is fearful that a decision to unionize could lead to pay decreases and additional work hours.
"They’re telling them they’re going to give them $28 an hour,” he said. “Me personally, I’ve been there three years now and I’m making more money than that. So I’m going to take a cut in pay, all these other people are going to take a cut in pay. But they’re being told they are going to make more money."
Mike Burton, another worker at the plant, is also opposed.
"We’re down to 40 hours a week instead of six days a week, and we have a three day weekend every week. Let’s not mess that up," he said.
VW has been publicly neutral on the vote. But when the German automaker last week announced an agreement with the UAW to coordinate their messages to workers, the union received a significant boost it has not had in previous, unsuccessful organizing efforts in the South.
Under Tennessee law, workers would not have to join the union to be represented.
Volkswagen announced earlier this year that a new SUV model will be built either in Chattanooga or Mexico. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said that decision could be influenced by the UAW vote.
Haslam, a staunch opponent of the move, isn't dialing back his heavy criticism of the UAW’s possibly winning representation of workers at its first foreign automaker in the South.
The governor on Tuesday sent a letter to Frank Fischer, the head of the Chattanooga plant, raising questions about the union election process and whether the result will be accepted by workers and the community.
The letter, released at the request of The Associated Press, urged the company to change its policy of allowing the UAW to campaign in the factory but not outside groups opposing the union.
"This distinction favoring the UAW at the expense of employees opposed to union representation is of concern to us," Haslam said in the letter.
He said that "many will differ on the advisability of union representation," but argued that the company should strive for fairness.
"The manner in which the company administers and oversees the process is critical not only to the company, but also to the general perception and acceptance of any result by the employees and community in which they live and work," he said.
Haslam said after a speech to the Tennessee Press Association on Thursday that a union win at Volkswagen would hurt the state's ability to attract suppliers and other future business, and would not help to secure the assembly of the new SUV at the Chattanooga plant.
"They have been hammering us, saying the cost differential to build that in Chattanooga is too great, and we've got to find a way to narrow that cost," Haslam said.
"Every economic study I've been shown says if the plant unionizes it will not lower the cost to produce a vehicle there," he said.
But for all the controversy, Volkswagen is no stranger to unions.
Lowell Turner, director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, told Al Jazeera that having union representation and a works council at the plant is "part of VW’s culture."
German law gives labor representatives half the seats on Volkswagen's supervisory board, where some members have raised concerns about the Chattanooga plant being alone among the company's large factories without formal labor representation.
"Volkswagen has 62 firms around the world. All of them except Chattanooga and the two plants in China have union representation and a works council," Turner said.
"Unionization is not something that is excluded in the South. What’s new in this case is the United Auto Workers to organize a foreign-owned transplant,” he said. “It would bring a new model of labor relations to this plant, union representation would include a German-style works council," which would give workers an additional voice at the table.
Conservative groups opposed to the unionization have also put pressure on workers not to vote for the union by blaming the financial collapse of Detroit on the UAW.
The Center for Worker Freedom paid for 11 billboards around the Chattanooga area to draw opposition to the union. One billboard reads: "Detroit, brought to you by the UAW" and shows a picture of the dilapidated city.
"Some of these right-wing Chattanooga billboards are saying the UAW destroyed Detroit, and now they’re going to destroy Chattanooga if we let them in, and that’s ridiculous," Turner said. "The UAW never had anything to do with running the city of Detroit. The city of Detroit was massively mismanaged."
Al Jazeera and wire services