Workers at Volkswagen's lone U.S. plant in Tennessee on Wednesday kicked off a three-day election that will determine whether they will be represented by the United Auto Workers union.
If the union succeeds, the Chattanooga plant would become the first among foreign automakers in the South to unionize.
A loss for the UAW would deal a severe setback for the union that has staked its future on organizing workers at plants outside of Detroit's Big Three.
The Chattanooga plant is alone among Volkswagen's major factories around the world without formal worker representation. The vote presents the UAW's best chance among the foreign transplants, because the corporate structure of the German automaker favors the creation of "works councils," where both blue-collar and salaried employees have a say in working conditions at the plant.
The company has said that under U.S. law it can't create the domestic auto industry's first works council without the establishment of a union at the plant.
In the interest of gaining a foothold at Volkswagen, the UAW signed an agreement with the company that it would "delegate functions and responsibilities ordinarily belonging to a union to a plant works council" if it wins this week's vote.
The prospect of unionization is dreaded by Republican politicians in the state, who say they worry about losing a competitive edge in drawing future manufacturing jobs to Tennessee.
Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor who played a key role in bringing Volkswagen to Tennessee, has been among the most vocal critics of the union drive.
Corker on Tuesday called the vote a "quickie election" because it wasn't announced until last week and said the UAW had stacked the balloting in its favor by heavily lobbying labor interests at the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, over the preferences of local managers.
The senator declined to speculate on litigation that might be filed in the event of a UAW victory, though he did suggest that it's unclear whether the company can establish a works council even with the participation of a union.
Republicans in the state Legislature earlier this week warned Volkswagen workers that a vote in favor of the UAW could threaten the passage of state incentives seen as key to bringing new production to the plant.
Volkswagen announced in early January that it is mulling over whether to build a new SUV in Chattanooga or in Mexico. Labor leaders on Volkswagen's board have insisted that cost concerns — not unionization questions — will determine where that vehicle is built.
State Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty told The Associated Press this week that the state's 90-day incentives offer to VW for building the SUV here recently expired.
Renewed talks would likely lead to another incentive arrangement, though Hagerty said those would be tied to available state funds amid flagging revenue collections.
"Let me be emphatically clear," he said. "We have never said to Volkswagen that we would not incentivize their deal if they were union or not union."
Hagerty said it is unlikely state lawmakers would be willing to forgo future growth of the plant on anti-union grounds.
"I think economics will prevail in these discussions," he said. "That's always been my experience with the Legislature."