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The Plot Thickens: Mystery Trip to Germany for Chattanooga City Officials

Earlier this month, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger skipped the Mayor’s Industry Appreciation Breakfast in order to meet with Volkswagen officials at the auto company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

The Mayors were lobbying for the expansion of Chattanooga’s plant and the production of the new line of VW BlueCross Coupe cross-over SUVs.  Though no official decision has been made yet, President and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Ron Harr is optimistic that the trip was a good step towards securing SUV production locally, rather than letting China or Mexico reap the benefits of producing the new line.

Though the alleged intent of the trip was well known, the Mayors’ lips remained sealed, refusing to disclose any information regarding the actual meeting. According to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity publication Tennessee Watchdog, however, Coppinger’s spokesperson Michael Dunne also refused to answer any other question related to the trip, even in regards to travel arrangements. Dunne told Tennessee Watchdog: “We are not commenting on any aspect of the trip whatsoever.”

Why so secretive?

Perhaps there is more to the trip than the Mayors would like us know. One cannot help but speculate that the United Auto Workers’ plans to unionize the Chattanooga plant may have been a key reason behind the trip. After all, the German newspaper Handelsblatt reported that top official for VW’s German works council Stephen Wolf stated, “We will only agree to an extension of the site or any other model contract when it is clear how to proceed with the employees' representatives in the United States.”

Wolf’s indirect threat to block the expansion of Chattanooga’s VW plant shows that the decision may be entirely contingent upon whether or not the plant is organized by the UAW. Therefore, unionizing VW in Chattanooga might not only be in the German Union IG Metall’s best interest, but also in the Mayors’.

The Chattanooga facility has been a source of economic growth and prosperity for the city; the University of Tennessee recently conducted a study which found that since the plant opened in 2011, it helped create 12,400 new jobs — both at the plant and across many suppliers. Additionally the plant has contributed to an annual $53 million increase in state and local taxes.

Expanding the plant is an opportunity the Mayors can’t afford to miss. And they may be willing to cut this deal at any cost—even if that means bringing the UAW to town.