House Democrats expressed astonishment Monday that Gov. Bill Haslam and other Tennessee Republicans would threaten to pull economic incentives for Volkswagen if its Chattanooga factory seeks union representation for its workers.
"It's almost unprecedented in this country," said Mike Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "This is a very bad precedent to set."
Turner and other Democratic lawmakers called a press conference Monday to say they were "stunned" that Republicans in government would attempt to interfere with agreements made involving private businesses. They said they feared the move would dissuade future businesses from coming to Tennessee.
"I would be reluctant to come here if the government, and the Republican Party, is going to second-guess my business," said Turner, who represents Old Hickory.
Haslam has been outspoken in his opposition to Volkswagen's plan to introduce a German-style workers' council at the car manufacturer's Chattanooga plant. The council, which would feature employees and management, would deal with issues of efficiency and working conditions, but not wages or benefits.
Republican legislators have threatened to withhold the tax incentives that brought the car manufacturer to Tennessee three years ago if the company elects to unionize.
George Barrett, a civil rights and labor lawyer, believes such a move would violate civil rights law and the U.S. Constitution.
"The state cannot discriminate against a company because it is organized or not organized," said Barrett. "The threat is as bad as the act."
Turner, in a news release, said Republicans "are basically threatening to kill jobs if workers exercise their federally protected rights to organize."
The plant's 3,000 workers will vote Wednesday through Friday on whether to accept representation by the United Automobile Workers and install the council. The Chattanooga plant is currently the only Volkswagen plant in the world without some sort of worker representation.
"A significant portion of VW is owned by trade unions in Germany," said Barrett. "If you're going to invite someone into your house, you don't first insult them."