NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Detroit's troubles have been front and center in the heavy campaign by union opponents seeking to dissuade workers at Volkswagen's lone U.S. assembly plant from voting for representation by the United Auto Workers.
Billboards near the Chattanooga plant have linked the UAW to shuttered auto plants in Detroit, and Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker repeatedly returned to the city's bleak fate during a press conference Tuesday.
Corker said a UAW win at the German automaker's lone U.S. plant would be a blow to the pro-business culture the city has built and hurt efforts to lure other companies.
"Let me just ask you this question: How many companies from South Korea, or Japan or Germany make a stop in Detroit look at locating there? Not a one," he said. "And it's because of the culture that the UAW has largely contributed to."
About 1,500 Volkswagen workers are eligible to cast ballots in a three-day election beginning Wednesday. They'll decide whether the plant becomes the South's first foreign automaker to unionize. But it wouldn't be the UAW's first foray into the state.
Workers at the General Motors plant in the Nashville suburb of Spring Hill, about 100 miles west of Chattanooga, have been represented by the UAW since the facility produced its first vehicle in 1990. Mike Herron, the bargaining president of UAW Local 1853, dismissed Corker's comments about the union as a "fear campaign." He said the experience in Spring Hill has been a positive one dating back to when the former Saturn plant had nearly 8,000 workers.
"You don't have to go very far in this area to find our people deeply involved in the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs. They're coaches, deacons of the churches," Herron said. "They're your friends and neighbors."
Herron also turned back arguments that a UAW win would sour other companies from deciding to do business in Tennessee.
"There's been no negativity relative to the union, nobody's scared off work here," he said. "We have suppliers that are unionized and non-unionized that supply this plant."
Employment at the plant was dialed back significantly as GM phased out and ultimately ended the Saturn brand, and vehicle production was idled in Spring Hill amid the economic downturn in 2009.
But production was restarted following a 2011 contract agreement with the UAW. The complex now employs about 2,000 people - up from a low of about 630 in 2009.
Herron noted that the union contract this year yielded a record $7,500 in profit sharing for each worker, up from $6,750 and $7,000 in the previous two years.
"Directly tying performance to the profitability of the company means when the company does well, the workers do well," he said.
Corker was dismissive of the UAW experience at GM and pointed to the achievements at the nearby Nissan assembly plant in Smyrna, where efforts to unionize workers have failed. More than 7,000 people work in manufacturing jobs at the plant that produces several models, including the all-electric Leaf.
"Look at the history of Spring Hill," Corker said. "I don't think they compare very favorably."