On April 9, workers in the plant filed a petition for what will be their third attempt to form a union there, this time to represent 1,709 employees.
A plantwide vote in 2014 was narrowly defeated despite an official neutrality agreement with VW, after an aggressive public anti-union campaign led by Lee’s predecessor, former Gov. Bill Haslam, and third-party anti-labor groups. A smaller unit of 160 skilled trades workers won a vote to unionize with the UAW in 2015, but the skilled trades union did not reach an agreement with the automaker on a first contract.
Lee, who said he “chose to come here on my own today” and was not accompanied into the meeting with workers by any state or local media, told the VW employees that he would not attack those with whom he disagreed.
“I know you all have an important vote that is coming up; that there is differences of opinion around that,” Lee said about 11 minutes, 30 seconds into the 20-minute recording. “I do believe, based on my personal experience working with hundreds of skilled tradespeople over 35 years of working, that every workplace has challenges.”
He added: “I also believe that your voice, and you’re representing your challenges and the things that you want to see improved in your workplace, my experience is that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that’s when” the relationship works best.
The audience on the recording responded with a split chorus of boos, jeers and applause, with one man shouting, “What’s the difference between Spring Hill and here?” referencing General Motors UAW-represented work force in Spring Hill, Tenn.
Lee told the audience, which was growing audibly agitated, “I respect your differences of opinion, but just felt compelled to share my opinion.” He also said he was “very used to people disagreeing with me.”