Friday, April 18, 2014 · 10:57 p.m.
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A majority of registered Hamilton County voters think that unionization of the local Volkswagen plant by the United Auto Workers would have a negative impact on area economic development, according to a Nooga.com poll.

The sentiment of registered voters in Hamilton County appears to provide political cover for elected officials such as Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, who have spoken out in strong opposition of the UAW.

According to the poll, 55 percent of voters in the county think the UAW unionizing Volkswagen would negatively impact economic development, and 32 percent think it would have a positive impact.

The survey found that 13 percent of respondents didn’t have an opinion on the issue.

Among voters in the city of Chattanooga, the results were 50 percent negative, 36 percent positive and 14 percent didn’t know.

Demographic results
Among nine of the 13 demographic groups, a majority thought the impact would be negative. Only two of the groups (voters identifying as Democrats and as black) thought the impact would be positive.

A majority of all age groups said the UAW’s presence would be negative for economic development: voters age 40 and younger (65 percent), age 40 to 60 (53 percent) and age 60 and older (55 percent).

Respondents with more education were more likely to say the union would be negative for economic development. People with less than a high school diploma were evenly divided, with 42 percent saying positive and 42 percent saying negative.

A majority of men (60 percent) and women (55 percent) said the union presence would have a negative impact on economic development. Women who work were more likely to say negative than women who stay at home.

Sixty-one percent of Democrats said the impact would be positive. A majority of those identifying as Republicans (82 percent) and Independents (62 percent) said the impact would be negative.

Sixty-three percent of black voters said the union’s presence would have a positive impact on economic development, and 63 percent of white voters said negative.

Bigger picture
After a decade on the decline, there has been an uptick in union membership in Tennessee, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Historically, after initially organizing to help workers get humane treatment, the auto unions branched out into establishing middle-class earnings and benefits.

But by the ‘70s and ‘80s, auto manufacturing unions began to cramp the way auto companies worked. Although unions were initially able to shift some power away from the company and give it to employees, many people began to think that union regulations became counterproductive and profit-zapping, according to Nooga.com archives.

Since then, union presence has dwindled in Southern right-to-work states, such as Tennessee, and in large part, federal law protects employees from mistreatment.

But according to the data for 2013, Tennessee has seen the largest percentage growth in union membership in the country, according to The Tennessean.

In 2013, Tennessee union membership increased by 31,000 members.

That increase brings the total number of union workers in Tennessee to 155,000. That means 6.1 percent of all Tennessee workers were union members in 2013.

Last year, the nation’s union membership remained the same as it was in 2012 at 11.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over a 10-year period, union membership is down in 43 states. Although membership numbers haven't changed much from 2012-2013, they have declined since 1983, the first year of data available, also according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union membership in Tennessee has decreased by 1.4 percent in the past 10 years.

Politicians weigh in
Recently, some public officials and Volkswagen employees began speaking out against the UAW efforts, citing harm to economic development if the union organized at VW.

Over the weekend, some Volkswagen workers said they want outside interest groups and politicians to stop weighing in on the issue, according to a news release from the UAW. 

"The billboards, advertising and press activities by those not even from our community leave a bad taste in my mouth," Volkswagen worker Michael Cantrell said in a prepared statement. "We also placed our trust in elected officials, but they’ve chosen to put their own political interests first, and they are interfering in our election, too.  It’s just not right."

State legislators, including Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick—both Republicans—are scheduled to have a news conference at 10 a.m. Monday, where they are expected to express opposition to the UAW.

Last week, former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said he hopes employees vote against the United Auto Workers, citing the potential for economic harm to the area.

Haslam also repeated his talking points opposing the UAW last week, while Corker said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to comment more in the time leading up to the election.

But Corker has spoken a lot about how he’s opposed to the UAW specifically, not unions in general.

"Other politicians should follow the lead of Sen. Corker and respect these workers’ right to make up their own minds," UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel said in a prepared statement. 

Background
Officials announced last week that Volkswagen employees will get a secret ballot vote about whether they want to be represented by the UAW.

That announcement came after years of quiet work by union leaders, who are now working toward a hybrid of German and American union representation models. Click here to read the election agreement between VW and the UAW.

The secret ballot election is scheduled for this week, Feb. 12-14.

About the poll
Multi-Quest conducted the survey by telephone Dec. 11-18 among 401 registered voters in Hamilton County. Survey respondents were contacted by landline and cellphone. The margin of error is plus or minus 6 percent.

This article relies on a subgroup of the overall survey that consists of 211 registered voters in the city of Chattanooga. The margin of error for this subgroup is plus or minus 8 percent.

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