Sen. Lamar Alexander said Saturday he was “surprised” at Volkswagen’s attitude toward the unionization of its Hamilton County plant.

His comments came less than 24 hours after the workers at the plant voted down the United Auto Workers union’s efforts to unionize by a vote of 712-626 after three days of voting.

The union had faced stern opposition from Republican politicians who warned that a union win would chase away other automakers who might come to the region.

Alexander’s senatorial collegue, Sen. Bob Corker, was the most vocal opponent, saying that he was told VW would not build a new SUV in Chattanooga if workers approved the union. That was later denied by a VW executive in Tennessee.

The UAW for decades has tried without success to organize a foreign-owned plant in a region that is wary of organized labor. The loss now makes it even harder for the union to recruit members at another Southern factory, a key priority of outgoing UAW President Bob King. He has said in the past the union has no long-term future if it can’t organize the Southern plants. 

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Banner, Alexander said the state’s right-to-work laws are responsible for the successes Tennessee and other Southern states have had in attracting businesses.

“The reason the automobile industry began to move to the Southeast 30 years ago when I was governor was because Tennessee had a right-to-work law and every state north of us did not,” Alexander said.

“That was their main reason,” he said. “We were in a central location, 14 assembly plants came south, thousands of suppliers followed and nothing has done more in the last 30 years to raise family incomes in Tennessee than that has.”

He said it was the employees’ decision whether or not to have a union.

“If you look at the companies that have moved here, they have taken advantage of the different labor relations,” he said. 

“The most efficient and most successful and largest auto plant in North America is the Nissan plant in Tennessee, whose employees have chosen not to be in a union.”

It was during Alexander’s term as governor Nissan elected to begin production of its Saturn vehicles in Smyrna.

“I’ve been a little surprised at the Volkswagen company’s attitude toward this [issue] and not being willing to see the advantages of the different labor relations we have in the Southeast,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he would need to revisit the federal labor laws that restrict employees and employers from forming work councils unless the employees are unionized.

“I don’t suspect there will be changes in the labor laws based on this,” he said. “Any work council in the United States has to follow the rules that are set up in the United States. It doesn’t seem to me it would be possible to have the same kind of work council in the United States that Volkswagen has in other parts of the country. I think the employees recognize that and I think that’s why they made the decision they did.”

The senator also commented on the current atmosphere in Washington and in Congress saying the best way to change things the Capitol is to add six new Republican senators.

“We know what to do. We need to fix the debt. We need to stop the trend toward a national school board. We need to repair the damage done by Obamacare,” he said. “But we can’t do it as along as [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and Barack Obama are calling all the shots.”

He said his hopes were for the GOP to retain control of the Senate, where they could “set a different agenda and then finish the job in 2016 by electing a president.”

Alexander has come under some fire from Tea Party conservatives saying he has not stood firmly enough against certain measures such as raising the debt ceiling.

The senator said that was not the case and expounded on a recent article he had written explaining without the 60 votes required in the Senate, it is virtually impossible to stop such measures that are unpopular in the eyes of conservatives.

“I think most Tennesseans understand that,” Alexander said. “You have to have 60 votes to get a result because the founders set it up that way. They wanted [the Senate] to be a place where we had a consensus.

“What I said is I learned how to count in the Maryville City Schools and if you have 45 Republican senators and you need 60 votes, you’re going to have to get some people from the other side if you want to fix the debt, end the idea of a national school board and end Obamacare.”

Alexander defended his conservative record saying he has continuously fought for his principles both as governor and senator.

“And then, I try to get a result as close to those principles as I can,” he said. “I think most people respect that.”

Alexander was in Bradley County Saturday as the guest speaker for the Bradley County GOP’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner held at Walker Valley High School.