Corker must come clean on the Volkswagen union election

Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) problems concerning his intrusion in February’s union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga just got much more serious. Confidential emails obtained this week by a Nashville television station reveal that his chief of staff was in direct contact with anti-union organizations about the messaging of their unprecedented campaign of threats and intimidation. Never before in the history of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections has a U.S. Senator and his staff interfered to this extent in a union election at a private company.

To recap: Corker had initially stated that he would not intrude in the election, but shortly before the vote, he raced to Tennessee in order to dramatically escalate the Republican intimidation: Corker stated on day one of the three day election that he had received assurances that Volkswagen would locate production of a new mid-sized SUV in Chattanooga if workers rejected the United Auto Workers union (UAW). Bizarrely, Corker doubled-down on his disingenuous remarks even after Volkswagen’s top U.S. executive categorically refuted them. He accused CEO Frank Fischer of using “old talking points,” and implied that his information had come directly from the real decision makers in Bavaria. It hadn’t. Corker had promised that the announcement would come within two weeks of the election, but more than a month later, there’s still no word on the production of the SUV.

Corker’s comments were unprecedented. Never before had a sitting U.S. senator misused the authority of his office to interfere in a NLRB election in this way.  But Corker’s involvement in the anti-union campaign went beyond his deliberately misleading comments. Damning emails obtained by Channel 5 News in Nashville show that the day before the election, Corker’s chief of staff, Todd Womack, discussed campaign messaging with leading anti-union organizations. His email concerned three anti-UAW videos that were produced for the AstroTurf group Southern Momentum by Projections, a leading “union avoidance” firm. According to Projections, the videos, which were shown at public meetings, placed on a prominent anti-UAW website and given to workers on flash drives to view at home with their families, “lay out a litany of UAW offenses.”

The recipients of Womack’s email represent a who’s who of Tennessee lawmakers, union avoidance organizations and regional business leaders. They included Bill Hagerty, Commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development and a member of the Governor’s cabinet; Maurice Nicely, an anti-union lawyer who fronted Southern Momentum; Jim Gray, head a South Carolina firm that has “a primary focus on union avoidance”; Don Jackson, a former Volkswagen plant manager turned leading anti-UAW spokesperson; Ron Harr, CEO of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce; Peter List, a notorious anti-union consultant and blogger; and Tim Spires, CEO of the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers.. In addition to disclosing the astonishing number of groups that were working to undermine workers’ choice, the email shows that senior Republican staffers were in contact with them over anti-union messaging.

Additional documents obtained by Channel 5 provide more evidence that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) told Volkswagen that the continuation of financial incentives – essential to future employment at the plant – may depend on the outcome of the vote. At the same time as state lawmakers had threatened to withhold incentives, Haslam was accusing Volkswagen of favoring the union. As Republicans coordinated their outrageous actions with anti-union organizations behind the scenes, Haslam warned Frank Fischer that it was essential that workers be allowed to vote “without undue influence,” and stated that a fair process was essential to the “acceptance of any result by the employees and the community in which they live and work.” But thanks to Republican dirty tricks, the Chattanooga vote was anything but fair. The stark contrast between these public statements and the behind-the-scenes chicanery shows that when unions are concerned, GOP hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The new documents provide yet more evidence that the intensive anti-union campaign was anything but a grassroots effort by ordinary Volkswagen employees. It was a well-financed campaign orchestrated and implemented by leading Republican lawmakers, their senior staff and powerful anti-union organizations. The private emails suggest a significant amount of coordination between Republican lawmakers and anti-union extremists in the messaging of the campaign. The tone of the secret emails indicates a high degree of familiarity between the recipients: these were not one-off communications.

All of this begs the question: How much more evidence will emerge that leading Republican lawmakers and their staffs conspired with anti-union groups to undermine the free choice of Volkswagen workers? It seems likely that more details of underhand activities will be uncovered.

The phony outrage expressed by Corker that the NLRB might interfere with his right to speak out should now be treated with the derision it deserves.  He misled workers about the implications of their vote, and, as indicated by confidential emails, he has misled them about the extent of his involvement in the campaign. It is time for Sen. Corker to come clean about the Volkswagen election. 

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

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