But the white, male workers that represent much of the South's labor force remain staunchly anti-union, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of UC Santa Barbara’s labor studies center.

"This stuff is embedded into the political life of Tennessee, and they take their guidance from conservative politicians," he said.

That's why the comments made by leading Republicans and groups such as those run by anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist worried union organizers during voting this week. Two-thirds of Chattanooga voters supported Corker in the 2012 election.

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Labor advocates criticized Corker for saying he is against government interference in private affairs, yet meddling with the Volkswagen vote.  Cornell's Wheaton said Tennessee leaders want to protect the state's reputation as having a low cost of doing business.

"The members of the Tennessee Senate will not view unionization as in the best interest of Tennessee," State Sen. Bo Watson told reporters this week. He said the legislature might not approve more incentives for Volkswagen if the plant joined UAW.

Except for some new hires, the pay of UAW workers at U.S. automakers exceeds that of the more than 1,500 Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, according to industry estimates. The $1-billion plant builds the Passat sedan, and the world's third best-selling automaker has said its weighing whether to begin manufacturing a new crossover vehicle there or in Mexico.

Jack Getman, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said  foreign automakers are crucial to the UAW's future.

"The single biggest group that could change the fate of the union is transplants such as Toyota, Honda and all those who have built factories in the U.S. and successfully fought off the union," Getman said.

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