By Bernie Woodall
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said on Wednesday 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, long an opponent of the union which he says hurts economic and job growth in Tennessee, made his comments 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.
"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 VW plant in Puebla, Mexico.
Gary Casteel, UAW regional director whose 12-state area includes Tennessee, said, "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. And I'm comfortable with VW's position. They have been very consistent," said Casteel on Wednesday night.
A spokeswoman for Corker did not immediately reply whether Corker is also saying that a vote for the UAW will mean that Volkswagen will not place the new product at the plant, which could create an estimated 1,500 new jobs.
Volkswagen officials did not immediately return calls and emails for comment on Corker's statement.
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.
There are about 1,550 Volkswagen workers at Chattanooga eligible to vote in the election, which is supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
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)