Governor Lee's surprise visit to Volkswagen stirs union vote talk, UAW responds
The United Auto Workers responded Wednesday to Channel 3's story about Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's visit to the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant with the following statement:
"Governor Lee has met and embraced the UAW members at GMs Spring Hill, Tennessee plant. Why wouldn’t the Governor want Chattanooga workers to have the same bargaining rights as Tennessee workers at Spring Hill and every other VW plant in the world. Why would the Governor or anyone else not want Chattanooga workers to have the same bargaining rights as the UAW leaders at Spring Hill he has embraced?"
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee made a surprise visit to Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant Monday as he put it, on his "own time." Media outlets were not invited or given access, as he addressed plant employees who will soon choose whether or not to unionize.
The mayors of Hamilton County and Chattanooga say they did not know the governor would be speaking at Volkswagen. However, someone recorded the governor's speech, and leaked the audio online, revealing a divided workforce.
Volkswagen's assembly lines came to a stop as Governor Lee weighed in on an upcoming vote by plant employees on representation by the United Auto Workers. In the closed-door meeting, the governor marked his 100th day in office, before stating his concerns about a potential union at Volkswagen.
The leaked audio, obtained and posted by Labor Notes, described as a national pro-worker magazine, features the governor's remarks, and a strong reaction from VW workers.
About eleven minutes into his speech, he made these remarks:
"I know you all have an important vote that is coming up; that there is differences of opinion around that. I do believe, based on my personal experience working with hundreds of skilled tradespeople over 35 years of working, that every workplace has challenges. I also believe that your voice, and you're representing your challenges and the things that you want to see improved in your workplace, my experience is that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you're working for me, that's when the relationship works best."
At that point, the workers became vocal with some loud boos, as well as some cheering mixed in.
Although the UAW lost a close election at the Chattanooga plant in 2014, hourly plant workers are calling for a new vote this year. Governor Lee said he was used to people disagreeing with him, but felt compelled to express his opinion.
On the day after his appearance, the Center for Union Facts released a video, in what they call an effort to hold the United Auto Workers accountable for corruption and anti-worker tactics. You can watch the video below:
Labor Notes describes that message and the governor's visit as "part of another onslaught of threats and lies from politicians and anti-union groups."
On Tuesday afternoon, a group of Chattanooga Volkswagen workers revived "Southern Momentum, a grassroots organization that aims to defeat the UAW. The workers also began distributing information inside the plant to push back on what they call the UAW's disinformation.
The governor's office did not respond to Channel 3's request for comment concerning the leaked audio. Instead, we were referred to a written statement that was provided by Lee's press secretary, Laine Arnold, on Monday.
"At the invitation of leadership at Volkswagen, Gov. Lee spoke with employees about the continued economic growth of Chattanooga and surrounding areas. Gov. Lee highlighted the administration’s commitment to workforce development through G.I.V.E and the Future Workforce Initiative and why this state is such an attractive place for business development. During the speech, he acknowledged that plant workers are facing an important vote in the coming weeks and he shared his own personal experiences in business and how he worked to create an environment where his employees thrived."