The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will soon decide on whether to overturn the union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee because outside interference undermined workers’ choice. The facts demonstrate that third-party interference by GOP politicians and anti-union groups created “a general atmosphere of fear or reprisal rendering a free election impossible.”

The NLRB must overturn the tainted VW election for five main reasons.


First, leading state lawmakers – including state House Republican leaders Beth Harwell, Gerald McCormick and Bo Watson, and state Senate Republican leaders Jack Johnson and Mark Green – publicly threatened the job security of Volkswagen workers if they voted for the UAW. They threatened to withhold financial incentives from Volkswagen, which would have imperiled future employment at the plant. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam also warned that a union victory would undermine job security for Volkswagen workers. Broadcast, print and social media disseminated their statements. Workers had good reason to believe that these politicians would act on their threats, if the union won.

Second, Tennessee’s most senior politician, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong George Conway hits Republicans for not saying Trump's name while criticizing policy Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid MORE, misled and pressured workers into voting against the union. Corker announced he had received “assurances” that the company would locate a new product in Tennessee if they rejected the UAW. On the first day of the three day election, Corker's office issued a press release that stated: “Corker: Conversations Today Indicate a Vote Against UAW is a Vote for SUV Production.”

Corker’s deliberately misleading comments, which he doubled down on even after the company categorically refuted them, played a decisive role in the outcome. Volkswagen workers were concerned primarily about the impact of the vote on their job security, and Corker told them that security would be diminished if the union won. His comments, which dramatically escalated the GOP’s threats, should by themselves be sufficient grounds for the NLRB to toss out the tainted election. A U.S. Senator using his office to intimidate workers in a union election at a private company is unprecedented.

Third, out-of-state billionaire-funded “AstroTurf” organizations repeated and publicized the threats and intimidation of GOP politicians, thereby ensuring that every Volkswagen worker had them foremost in their minds when they voted. Southern Momentum, Inc. (SMI), a Tennessee-based corporation funded by anti-union businesses, also played a critical role in highlighting in the media the threatening statements of various Tennessee lawmakers that “financial incentives…. simply will not exist if the UAW wins this election." Shortly before the election, a banner headline on SMI’s Facebook page announced: “Chattanooga Will Get New Line of SUVs if UAW Is Not Approved.”

Fourth, anti-union groups coordinated their interference in a way that rendered a free election impossible. It is implausible that these anti-union carpetbaggers descended on Chattanooga and subjected workers to identical high-pressure campaigns without a significant degree of coordination. These groups regularly cooperate on anti-union legislative initiatives at the state level. The cumulative effect of GOP threats and intimidation, together with the wide-reaching and coordinated campaign by anti-union groups to publicize them, led workers to believe that at vote for the UAW would severely damage their future employment prospects.

Finally, if the NLRB fails to overturn the tainted election, third party interference will become the norm in union campaigns in the South. The anti-union roadshow that misled Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga will be repeated elsewhere. Grover Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom, which spent a year in Chattanooga fighting the organizing campaign, intends to move on to Mississippi and Alabama to fight the UAW at Nissan and Mercedes-Benz. In Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and other GOP politicians have vowed to join efforts to stop workers from joining the UAW.

Given the widespread prevalence of low-wage employment in Chattanooga – New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote this week that over one quarter of the city’s residents live below the federal poverty line – it is no surprise that most Volkswagen workers were concerned above all with the outcome of the vote on their job security. Some 80,000 workers applied for only 2,000 jobs when Volkswagen opened its facility in the city in 2011. Thus, when virtually the entire political establishment of Tennessee told them that a vote for unionization would threaten their positions, the lucky 2,000 that had won the jobs lottery paid close attention and many voted accordingly.  The economic desperation that pervades Chattanooga and surrounding areas made the threats and intimidation of Republican politicians all the more potent.

After the election, Sen. Corker tried to downplay the significance of his comments. He disingenuously asked: “How many people even read the paper today?” But everyone heard his coercive statements. He has attempted to intimidate the Board into upholding the result. If the NLRB fails to act, however, dirty tricks by GOP politicians and anti-labor groups will become a standard feature of organizing campaigns, thereby enabling right-wing billionaires to buy union elections, just as they are already buying political elections.

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