By Bernie Woodall
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said on Wednesday he has been "assured" that if workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in his hometown of Chattanooga reject United Auto Worker representation, the company will reward the plant with a new product to build.
Corker's bombshell, which runs counter to public statements by Volkswagen, was dropped on the first of a three-day secret ballot election of blue-collar workers at the Chattanooga plant whether to allow the UAW to represent them.
Corker has long been an opponent of the union which he says hurts economic and job growth in Tennessee, a charge that UAW officials say is untrue.
"I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga," said Corker, without saying with whom he had the conversations.
In the past few weeks, Volkswagen officials have made several statements that the vote will have no bearing on whether the SUV will be made at the Chattanooga plant or at a plant in Puebla, Mexico.
National Labor Relations Board expert Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt, who is professor of labor at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, said Corker was trying to intimidate workers into voting against the union.
"I'm really kind of shocked at Corker's statement," said Dau-Schmidt. "It's so inconsistent with what VW has been saying and VW's labor relations policy in general."
The Indiana professor also said Corker's comments "would be grounds to set the election aside and have to run it all over again at a later date" because it could be ruled to be interfering to the point that it is against federal labor law.
A spokeswoman for Corker did not respond when asked whether the senator also meant that a vote for the UAW would mean that the plant would not get the new product, which could create an estimated 1,500 new jobs.
Volkswagen officials did not return calls and emails for comment on Corker's statement.
Mike Burton of Southern Momentum, an anti-UAW group of plant workers, said Corker's statement makes sense.
"We are in a battle with Mexico on where this new product goes," said Burton, "and it stands to reason that the union will add costs. We need to keep costs down to fight for that new product."
Another labor expert, Harley Shaiken of the University of California-Berkeley, said, "The senator's comments amount to economic intimidation that undermines the whole nature of union representation elections."
Shaiken often advises UAW officials.
"If the senator's statement doesn't violate the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit of the law," Shaiken said.
Gary Casteel, UAW regional director for a 12-state area that includes Tennessee, said on Wednesday night, "Corker's statement is in direct contradiction to Volkswagen's statements.
"They have specifically said that this vote will have no bearing on the decision of where to place the new product."
In the past, Casteel has said that Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, opened in 2011, needs a second product to survive. It has built the compact Passat sedan since it opened.
The plant has about 1,550 Volkswagen workers eligible to vote in the election, which is supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
Pro- and anti-UAW workers said they were not sure if snowy weather will affect turnout for the vote, which ends on Friday when the plant does not produce cars.
On Wednesday - day one of the vote - the night shift was canceled after only one car was produced because snow prevented workers reaching the plant, said two VW employees who wished to remain anonymous.
A source familiar with the plans of the Volkswagen supervisory board which makes decisions on product placement said that the board has not yet made a decision on the issue, and that it will take it up in a meeting on February 22.
Corker on Tuesday returned from Washington to hold a Tuesday press conference at his downtown Chattanooga senate office in order to speak against the UAW in time for the worker vote at the plant.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Christopher Cushing)