When workers at a Tennessee auto plant vote later this week on whether to form a union, the result will reverberate far beyond the mountains and ridges in its corner of the country.
Starting Wednesday, about 1,500 employees at a Volkswagen AG factory will cast their ballots in an election that marks a pivotal moment for car manufacturers and for organized labour in the United States.
A vote to unionize would represent a major victory for the United Auto Workers, which is striving to expand its numbers at a time when union membership is at historic lows in the country.
It would also mark the first time that the union had successfully organized an auto plant owned by a foreign car maker – which could lead to a fresh push to create unions at other such factories in the United States.
If the workers decline to form a union, it would deal a serious blow to the UAW and cement the reputation of the American South as a place that is traditionally hostile to organized labour.
"It's a defining moment for the UAW and for the automobile industry," said Harley Shaiken, an expert on labour issues at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's awfully important whatever way it goes."
The campaign at the three-year-old plant in Chattanooga has some unusual characteristics. Unlike in previous unsuccessful attempts to organize foreign-owned car plants, Volkswagen has not opposed the unionization drive. On the contrary, it has said that having an employee union would allow it to form a "works council" – a panel of blue-collar and white-collar workers that consults with management on questions of productivity and other matters.
"Volkswagen Group of America and the UAW have agreed to this common path for the election," said Frank Fischer, chairman and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, in a statement last week. "Volkswagen is committed to neutrality."
While Volkswagen has adopted a neutral stance – and seemingly adhered to it – the same is not true for local politicians. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has opposed unionization at the plant, saying that parts suppliers would be reluctant to locate their facilities nearby.
Bob Corker, a U.S. Senator representing Tennessee, has expressed similar views. "While I care about Volkswagen, what I care most about is our community and about our households being able to progress and have a great standard of living," he told The New York Times. "I'm concerned about the impact of the UAW on the future efforts to recruit business to our community."
The anti-union forces also include Chattanooga business leaders and national conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Washington-based group paid for a billboard next to a highway near the plant that read: "Auto unions ate Detroit. Next meal: Chattanooga?"
On the other side, the UAW is getting support from Germany's IG Metall union, which has representatives on the equivalent of Volkswagen's board of directors.
The vote at the plant begins on Wednesday and runs through Friday night. Among those carefully observing the result are the workers and managers at other foreign-owned car plants in the region – including a Nissan facility in Mississippi, a Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama and a BMW plant in South Carolina – that do not currently have unions.
Daniel Cornfield, a labour sociologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said a vote to unionize at the Volkswagen plant would be a break from tradition. "The South historically has been an anti-union, low-wage region of the U.S.," he said. "Much of its economic development policy at the state-government level has entailed attracting large corporations, especially foreign ones, which are operating non-union."
Prof. Cornfield said that if the unionization drive succeeds and a works council is formed, the Volkswagen plant would be a trailblazer in the annals of major manufacturers in the U.S. Such a council would be "highly unusual," he said.
Some Volkswagen officials sound eager to give it a shot. "Our plant in Chattanooga has the opportunity to create a uniquely American Works Council, in which the company would be able to work co-operatively with our employees and ultimately their union representatives," said Mr. Fischer of the Chattanooga plant in a statement on Saturday.