GOP undermined workers’ choice in Tennessee

In Chattanooga, Tennessee last week, Republican politicians and extremist anti-union groups pulled off a remarkable coup. A clear majority of workers in the town’s Volkswagen (VW) plant had signed cards requesting representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW) and management had vowed to remain neutral in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. But Tennessee Republicans and shadowy groups with links to Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers turned the election campaign into a dirty-tricks extravaganza. On Friday evening, it was announced that by a slim majority, Chattanooga’s autoworkers had voted to reject union representation.

How did the GOP and anti-union groups manage to pull of this remarkable feat?

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First let’s consider the activities of the external anti-union groups, including the laughably misnamed Workplace Fairness Institute, Worker Freedom Institute and Center for Worker Freedom. For weeks before the vote, workers were subjected to billboards, ads in local newspapers, op-eds, and websites stating, for example, that the union wanted to “take your guns.”  It should come as no surprise that they engaged in outrageous lies to scare workers – that is the modus operandi of these lavishly funded bully boys.   They have long engaged in sleaze in political campaigns and now they have engaged in sleaze in union campaigns.

But what explains the deplorable conduct of state and national GOP politicians?  At least two state lawmakers threatened VW with economic retribution – withholding of tax incentives -- if workers voted for unionization. This would only make it more likely that VW would expand production in Pueblo, Mexico and not in Chattanooga, but it appears they cared more about keeping the UAW out than about creating jobs in their own state. Moreover, according to Harvard law professor Ben Sacks, the “conditioning the availability of tax incentives on VW’s union status would in all likelihood be preempted by federal labor law, and therefore illegal.”

However, it was the conduct of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that most damaged the prospects for a free election. After stating that he would stay out of the vote, Corker returned to Tennessee to claim that he had been assured that VW would manufacture a mid-sized SUV in Chattanooga if the workers rejected the union. Head of the Chattanooga plant, Frank Fischer, immediately disowned his remarks and stated that the decision on where to expand production was separate from the union vote. Unperturbed by this denial, Corker accused Fischer of speaking from “old talking points” and stood by his comments. Corker’s remarks made a fair election impossible and did much to turn the vote against the union. He had used the authority of his office to say that a vote against the UAW was vote for more work in Tennessee, even though, according to VW management, his comments were unfounded.

Now that the election is over, Corker should have no problem disclosing who assured him that the rejection of the union would result in VW locating the SUV production in Chattanooga. If VW executives said this – which seems unlikely given the company’s respect for labor rights throughout the globe – that comment could form the basis of an unfair labor practice complaint. If not, it appears that Corker suggested this in order to pressure VW workers to vote against the union. While third parties are held to lesser standards in NLRB elections than the parties directly involved – allowing Corker to make comments that might be ruled illegal if made by VW or the union – the NLRB can set aside elections because of third party interference in exceptional circumstances such as these.

For too long GOP politicians and anti-labor extremists have conspired to undermine workers’ right to choose a union in the U.S. South.  But the outrageous threats and dirty tricks by Republicans during the VW election have elevated this political interference to a new level. It is one thing to say that they would prefer that autoworkers participating in a union election at a private company vote “no.” But to engage in brazen economic blackmail and make unfounded statements concerning the impact of the vote on jobs is clearly unacceptable, if not unlawful.

VW management tried to provide their workers a free and un-coerced choice on unionization, but GOP politicians and right-wing activists failed to extend them the same courtesy. VW will soon make an announcement on the location of its new SUV production line. Corker must be praying that it chooses Chattanooga. If not, he has a lot of explaining to do to the company’s Tennessee workforce.   

Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.