CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., Feb 14 (Reuters) - Workers at Volkswagen AG's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had just a few hours left on Friday to cast their ballots in a vote that could decide whether the once-powerful United Auto Workers union will gain a foothold in the foreign-owned auto industry that has sprung up in the American South.
The vote to allow workers' union representation at the Chattanooga plant will have wide-reaching implications for the auto industry in the South, where most foreign-owned plants employ nonunion labor, and for the UAW, which could use a victory to reverse a decades-long downward spiral.
The three-day vote by VW's 1,550 hourly workers at its sole U.S. plant is scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m. EST (0130 GMT Saturday). The results could be announced soon after that.
Voting turnout was heaviest on Wednesday, according to local workers, with an estimated 1,000 employees casting ballots. On Friday, when the plant normally is shut down for weekly maintenance, many of the maintenance workers were expected to cast their paper ballots, all of which will be counted individually after the vote closes.
For the UAW, whose U.S. membership has plummeted by 75 percent since 1979, a win could open the door to organizing other foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S. South, the cornerstone of UAW President Bob King's strategy.
A loss could accelerate the decline in membership, now at just under 400,000 from a peak of 1.5 million. It also would reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW cannot make significant inroads in a region that historically has been steadfastly anti-union. Virtually every state in the U.S. South has passed right-to-work legislation that gives workers the choice of joining a union and paying union dues.
For VW, the stakes also are high. The German automaker invested $1 billion in the Chattanooga plant, which began building Passat mid-size sedans in April 2011, after being awarded more than $577 million in state and local incentives.
VW executives have said a new seven-passenger crossover vehicle, due in 2016 and known internally as CrossBlue, could be built at either Chattanooga or the company's sprawling Puebla complex in Mexico, depending on the incentives offered at either location.
VW executives also have said that the bulk of the $7 billion that the company is investing in North America over the next four years is targeted for Mexico, including a new $1.3 billion Audi assembly plant.
Over the past week, however, several Republican politicians from Tennessee have added their voices to the growing anti-union chorus, implying that further subsidies to attract additional VW investment in Chattanooga could be threatened by a UAW victory.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and former mayor of Chattanooga, told Reuters on Thursday that he is "very certain that if the UAW is voted down," the automaker will announce new investment in the plant "in the next couple weeks," implying that a vote in favor of the union is a vote against the plant's future.
Earlier in the week, State Senator Bo Watson, another Tennessee Republican, said a UAW win at Chattanooga could derail any future incentives the state might provide to VW.
Prodded by IG Metall, the powerful German union that has several representatives on VW's supervisory board, the company has maintained what it calls a "neutral" stance toward the union, although the company agreed to permit UAW representatives into the plant to address workers.
Reached at midmorning on Friday, a member of the anti-union Southern Momentum group said that both union and anti-union workers were just waiting for the vote results.
"We're quiet. The union guys are quiet," said Mike Burton. "There are no politicians making statements, nothing."