(Reuters) - In a stinging defeat that could accelerate the decades-long decline of the United Auto Workers, employees voted against union representation at Volkswagen AG's Chattanooga, Tennessee plant, which had been seen as organized labor's best chance to expand in the U.S. South.
Retired Tennessee Circuit Court Judge Sam Payne, who oversaw the count, said workers voted against UAW representation by 712 to 626.
Advocates on both sides sought to sway workers' opinions to the very end. Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga who helped win the VW plant, said on Wednesday after the first day of voting that VW would expand the factory if the union was rejected.
"Needless to say, I am thrilled," Corker said in a statement after the results were disclosed. An announcement of whether a new seven-passenger crossover vehicle will be produced in Chattanooga or in Mexico could come as early as next week, VW sources told Reuters.
Pro-union advocates blamed Republicans for trying to manipulate the outcome, and President Barack Obama waded into the discussion early on Friday, accusing Republican politicians of being more concerned about German shareholders than U.S. workers.
But legal experts earlier had said that any challenge of the outcome, based on Corker's comments, would be difficult, given broad free speech protection for U.S. Senators.
The loss in Tennessee could further dent the prestige of the UAW, whose membership has plummeted 75 percent since 1979 and now stands at just under 400,000.
The decision also is likely to reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW cannot make significant inroads in a region that historically has been steadfastly against organized labor and where all foreign-owned assembly plants employ nonunion workers.
The results were particularly surprising for UAW supporters because VW had allowed the union access to the factory and officially stayed neutral on the vote, while other manufacturers have been hostile to organized labor.
Local anti-union organizer Mike Burton cheered the results. "Not on our watch," he exulted.
"We think it's unfortunate that there was some outside influence exerted into this process," a red-eyed Gary Casteel, regional director of the UAW, told reporters after the results were announced, adding that the process needed to be "evaluated".
For VW, the stakes also were 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 the new crossover vehicle, due in 2016 and known internally as CrossBlue, could be built at either the Chattanooga plant or in Mexico.
Some 89 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, Judge Payne said. The election was held over three days.
(Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit and Andreas Cremer in Berlin; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Ross Colvin and Ken Wills)