Last Friday the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protesting the “firestorm of interference” with the landmark union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. After being subjected to several weeks of intensive anti-union campaigning, which included brazen threats by powerful Republican politicians, the employees voted by a narrow margin against unionization.
The NLRB has the authority to set aside a tainted vote because of third-party interference when that interference creates “a general atmosphere of fear or reprisal rendering a free election impossible.” The evidence that coercive interference by Republicans lawmakers – reinforced by the actions of anti-union groups -- made a free election impossible in Chattanooga is overwhelming. Powerful Republicans stated that a vote for unionization would diminish the job security of Volkswagen workers several times and in several different forums. Workers participating in the high-profile election could not have failed to hear these threats or to have them uppermost in their minds when voting. The threats of senior Republican politicians, which were repeated by local media and outside anti-union groups, undermined the election process.
First, leading Republican lawmakers -- including Tennessee House leaders and influential state senators -- threatened to withhold tax incentives and other financial benefits from Volkswagen if workers voted for unionization. Workers understood that withholding these benefits would likely mean fewer VW jobs in Tennessee in the future. These threats were disseminated widely through broadcast media, social media and websites, some of which were paid for by anti-union organizations.
Workers participating in the election heard about the threats from multiple sources, including directly from powerful politicians who had the authority to act upon them. When leaders in the state legislature stated that the company might lose financial incentives, VW workers had good reason to expect that they would act on these threats. This evidence of coercive third-party interference can be grounds for overturning a flawed representation election.
Second, the coercive comments of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) most damaged the election process. On day one of the three-day election Corker stated he had been “assured” that VW would manufacture its new mid-size SUV in Chattanooga if workers voted against unionization. Volkswagen’s U.S. chief executive immediately refuted his remarks but in response Corker suggested that his information came from executives in Germany. Corker’s cynical and calculated comments almost certainly caused widespread fear and confusion among the workers and pressured them to vote “no.”
Third, Corker’s comments were widely reported in print and television media, repeated many times by anti-union organizations, and must have been heard by every VW worker, thereby making a fair vote impossible. These comments alone likely decided the outcome of the election. It now appears that Corker’s comments were entirely without foundation. Following the tainted vote, a high-ranking member of VW’s global works council stated that the anti-union interference had made future investment in the U.S. South less likely.
The sophisticated anti-union campaign at Chattanooga suggests a high degree of coordination between out-of-state organizations, many of which have joined together in previous policy campaigns. While they have collaborated on legislative issues like “paycheck protection” and “right to work,” this was the first time that groups with links to Grover Norquist and the Koch Brothers had descended en masse on one community to attack a specific union in a NLRB election at a private company. It beggars belief that these groups independently decided to come to Chattanooga without coordinating their anti-union activities. They have refused to disclose how much they spent on intimidation, or where the money came from. But it is safe to assume that various right-wing billionaires bankrolled this campaign for “worker freedom,” and their sole intention was to coerce Volkswagen workers into voting against the union.
The anti-union National Right to Work Committee has vowed to “exercise every legal option” to defend the flawed election at Volkswagen. Other right-wing groups and Republican lawmakers will undoubtedly pressure the NLRB not to overturn the tainted vote, which is what one would expect from those whose only concern is to ensure that the plant remains non-union, even if that means denying workers the right to a free and un-coerced choice.
Under the federal law, workers have the right to vote on union representation in an “atmosphere free of coercion, intimidation and interference.” The threats and intimidation by GOP politicians at Volkswagen were so extreme that they created an atmosphere of fear that rendered a free election impossible. In the interests of workplace democracy not just in Chattanooga but also throughout the country, the NLRB must overturn the tainted vote at Volkswagen.
Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.