Of course, the UAW would like to see industry wages rise. Union President Bob King, who will step aside in May, has made organizing a transplant automaker the key mission of his administration, in part to tip wage-negotiating power back in the direction of the UAW.

King’s heir apparent, Dennis Williams, has said he wants the second-tier entry wage paid at the Detroit Three plants increased so it is closer to pay earned by those with more than three years on the job, and is making that an objective of contract talks next year.

“It’s time to bridge the gap. No doubt about it,” Williams told The Detroit News last week.

But a victory by the UAW at Chattanooga mostly would be symbolic for the UAW, says Dziczek.

As the union has lost membership and its employers have ceded market share, some of the labor organization’s wage power has swung south of the Michigan border, she agrees.

Because there was the threat of the union organizing their plants, “Toyota and Honda wages and benefits were roughly comparable with (the Detroit Three),” Dziczek tells WardsAuto. “It’s only been in the last five to seven years where we’ve seen a deviation from that, where some of the international producers – even Toyota and Honda – have said we can set different wages for different regions.

“(It’s) an acknowledgement the union threat was not that strong any longer.”

But thanks in part to the 2-tier wage system in place at the Detroit Three and other concessions secured ahead of the 2009 bankruptcies, the labor-cost gap has narrowed overall across the industry and an apocalyptic battle over wages spawned by the Chattanooga vote appears unlikely.

In fact, non-union BMW and Mercedes already are shouldering the highest costs in the U.S., according to CAR data, hovering at the top end of the $54-$62 range, including benefits, also paid by Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda and Chrysler.

Volkswagen’s Chattanooga operation is in the bottom tier on wages, along with Hyundai and Kia, at about $40-$45 per hour. And while that certainly leaves room for some upward movement, part of that disparity is due to the Tennessee plant’s new workforce, which hasn’t accrued the type of benefits earned by workers who have been on the job for decades.

“Nobody at VW has 20 years’ seniority, so they have not built up higher wages on the wage scale,” Dziczek tells WardsAuto.

Shaiken says organizing Chattanooga wouldn’t necessarily have implications on auto industry wages or work practices elsewhere in the U.S.

“You wouldn’t have a pattern (contract with the Detroit Three),” he says. “But that’s not exactly new for the UAW. NUMMI (the former Toyota-GM joint venture in California that now is the site of Tesla production) was on its own schedule, and that was a large and important plant.”

And pay isn’t often the No.1 factor in why workers agree to organize anyway, Dziczek says.

“Dangling a carrot of a few more dollars an hour very rarely makes the case,” she says. “Workers take on this risk of organizing if they have other things, if they feel they were treated unfairly, if management is not open and predictable with the conditions of work.”

A win would have the UAW quickly beginning or stepping up organization drives at BMW, Mercedes and Nissan plants in the South, as well as suppliers serving those operations, Dziczek predicts. But even with VW workers onboard, big hurdles would remain.

The implications might not be that sweeping should the UAW fail, either, a distinct possibility given its track record in the region and the heightened political pressure being applied to workers.

A win ushers King out on a high note. But a loss probably means only a change in strategy under Williams, not the union’s final defeat, Dziczek says.

“I don’t think it’s devastating,” she says of the possibility the UAW drive could fail. “In either event, they will continue an aggressive push to organize more of the auto industry. They are sitting on a lot of money, and this is really important to the future success of the organization.”

The National Labor Relations Board is overseeing this week’s vote. The final tally is likely to be released Friday or Saturday, but it is unclear whether the results will be challenged in the courts.

Despite all the ambient noise, a cataclysmic near-term shift in the industry’s labor picture is unlikely to result, no matter which way the vote swings.

with Drew Winter and Byron Pope

dzoia@wardsauto.com