Union vote at VW's US plant being carefully watched

Workers at German auto giant Volkswagen's plant in Tennessee began voting Wednesday on whether to form a union, a decision seen as a referendum on the health of the US labor movement.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) has never managed to organize an American plant owned by a foreign manufacturer and a win at VW's Chattanooga, Tennessee facility would be a significant victory.

But Volkswagen opened the door to the UAW last year under pressure from German unions to give the Tennessee plant a seat on VW's global works council, which gives employees a say in the management of the company.

Despite the tacit support of VW management, analysts said it's not clear whether the UAW will succeed in the secret ballot.

Convincing workers in the southern United States to pay union dues isn't easy, especially after the UAW was blamed for the downfall of the Detroit Three carmakers.

Politicians from the governor on down have spoken out against the unionization efforts, warning that it will make it harder to attract business to Tennessee and could make it harder to compete with a Mexican VW plant for production of a new sport utility vehicle.

Some Republican state legislators have even threatened to withhold tax breaks that would help VW expand the plant should workers choose to unionize.

Outside groups have also poured money into billboards and radio ads urging workers to reject the union.

In addition to philosophical objections to unionization, the labor movement has also been a target of free market Republicans and their supporters because it is a major source of financial and grassroots support for the Democratic Party.

The VW vote comes as the American labor movement is fighting for its survival.

- Union membership decline -

The rate of unionization in the United States has dropped to its lowest since the 1930s: a paltry 11.3 percent.

The UAW alone has seen its membership rolls plummet from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979 to 383,000 today.

Automation and the outsourcing of production accounted for many of the union jobs lost in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Efforts to weaken unions through legislation have also taken a toll.

"What we're seeing is an attempt to jump-start the America labor movement," said Gary Chaison, a labor relations expert at Clark University in Massachusetts.

"If they can somehow win at VW, it would be a very important sign that there still is some appeal left in the American labor movement."

Success at VW would also increase pressure on fellow German automakers BMW and Daimler AG to accept unionization efforts at their US facilities.

It could even boost the union's claims for recognition at factories run by Japan's Nissan, Honda and Toyota and South Korea's Kia and Hyundai.

"This is going to be a pivotal moment for the auto industry and for labor," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

If the UAW succeeds, VW would establish the nation's first German-style works council.

Such councils -- which are only allowed in the United States if they include union representation -- are far more collaborative than traditional American unions.

The UAW already shifted to a more collaborative approach as it sought to help General Motors and Chrysler emerge successfully from a government-backed bankruptcy.

But a formal works council at VW would prove to be a powerful example that other automakers -- and industries -- could be drawn to adopt, Shaiken told AFP.

Including the input of workers in the production process allows companies to develop new methods and harness innovation more effectively, he said.

The National Labor Relations Board will begin counting the ballots of 1,500 eligible workers immediately after the polls close at 8:30 pm Friday. The results could be announced within a few hours but if there are disputes in the tally it could take days.