By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - A conservative group that helped defeat an organizing campaign by the United Auto Workers in Tennessee will take its anti-union fight to other auto plants in the South, its leaders said on Monday.
The Center for Worker Freedom, which is linked to anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, plans to renew its battle against the UAW at plants in Alabama and Mississippi where the union wants to organize.
"Those are likely the next big ones for the UAW," said Matt Patterson, executive director of the center. "We'll be there."
The UAW suffered a bitter setback on Friday when employees at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted 712 to 626 against joining the union, even though Volkswagen had remained neutral in the union drive.
The loss was a blow to the union's long-term plans to organize auto plants in the South. Patterson said his group would watch closely to see if the UAW adjusted its organizing strategy at the Daimler Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, and a Nissan Motor Co plant near Jackson, Mississippi.
"We'll modify our strategy accordingly," said Patterson, who spent more than a year helping to organize resistance to the union drive in Tennessee.
The center, created under the umbrella of Norquist's anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, used billboards and 30-second radio spots across the region to criticize the UAW effort and blame the union for the fiscal woes in Detroit, the struggling hub of the U.S. auto industry.
"The win reminds everyone, workers, the business community and families, of the costs of unionization - Detroit and decline - and the real possibility of stopping this recent power grab," Norquist said in an email to Reuters.
A chorus of Republican politicians in Tennessee and other conservative groups also fought against the union drive, arguing it would hurt the state's business climate, and some analysts cautioned against giving the center too much credit for the outcome.
Donald Schroeder, a Boston lawyer who works with management on labor issues, attributed the failed effort to the uncertain economy and said Republican politicians opposed to the union drive played a bigger role than Norquist's group.
The impact from Norquist's organization was "limited in scope," said Schroeder, adding employees were "worried first about keeping their jobs."
"I think it will be difficult to organize other plants in light of the VW vote," Schroeder said.
Patterson declined to discuss how much was spent on the campaign by the center, which worked with a coalition of community and business leaders to rally opposition.
He said the battle had awakened conservatives to the need to fight against unions like the UAW, and how the union responds to the defeat will be "pretty interesting," he said.
"They are going to have to sit back and look at their balance sheets and see what they can afford to do now," Patterson said.
The percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions reached a historic low at 11.3 percent in 2013, according to government data. In 1983, U.S. union membership rate was 20.1 percent