Lawmakers Threaten Workers Over Union Vote Their Bosses Welcome


Volkswagen workers at the Chattanooga, TN plant

Tennessee Republicans are threatening to block future legislation that helps keep automaker jobs in their state unless Volkswagen (VW) workers reject unionization in a union election that ends Friday evening.

“Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW),” state Sen. Bo Watson (R) said on Monday, “then I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has also waded in, albeit in a subtler fashion. Corker is telling the press that VW will decide to build a new line of cars at the plant so long as workers reject the UAW. The head of the VW plant says the senator is wrong, but Corker, who helped bring VW to Chattanooga when he was mayor there, says he was “assured” by his contacts at the company that workers can guarantee themselves more hours and more to do by voting no. Despite Corker’s anti-union stance in Chattanooga, he has received $47,000 in campaign money from union groups since 2006 according to a ThinkProgress review of contribution records.

Watson’s threats and Corker’s cajoling come even though Volkswagen has welcomed the United Auto Workers into its Chattanooga factory and sought to bring German labor organizing ideas to Tennessee. The German company is accustomed to working with worker groups in its facilities in Europe and is seeking to establish the same kind of positive rapport with its labor force in the American south, as ThinkProgress previously reported. In Germany, industrial laborers form something called a “works council” to represent their interests to management, and companies cultivate mutually beneficial cooperative relationships with those bodies. In order to have a “works council” in Chattanooga that doesn’t violate U.S. labor law, VW has to let its workers form a union first.

When asked why he and his fellow Republicans at the state level are meddling in workers’ choices that are welcomed by a private company, Corker told a Tennessee radio audience that they are afraid Chattanooga could be the start of something bigger. “It’s about momentum,” Corker said. “It’s about people believing that the UAW is going to gain momentum, candidly, in the South.”

That potential for a domino effect in the traditionally anti-union southern U.S. has drawn other national figures to the Tennessee fight. President Obama reportedly criticized Corker’s meddling in a closed-door meeting with House Democrats Friday morning, and conservative power-player Grover Norquist has also waded in.

Norquist’s group Americans for Tax Reform has paid to put up dozens of billboards in Tennessee that blame auto unions for the decline of Detroit, and insinuate that the UAW would bring Detroit’s problems south. But actual urban policy experts say Detroit’s problems all stem from much larger forces, including American car companies’ failure to adapt to a changing marketplace and Detroit’s failure to build a sustainable metropolitan center that could retain population. If Norquist’s billboards are meant to link unions to Detroit’s current bankruptcy, that makes even less sense: Detroit got pushed into insolvency because it got swindled by Wall Street, not because it pays modest pensions to its public workers or because its industrial base was unionized during both boom and bust times for the car industry.

Voting closes Friday for the 1,550-member Chattanooga plant that has drawn all this conservative ire. If the election brings organized labor to a southern auto factory, and if Republican fears that Chattanooga would be just the first domino to fall, then Tennessee’s middle- and lower-income families will have reason to rejoice. States with lots of union members have stronger and larger middle-class economies, and rising into the middle class would be welcome news for a state with a 17.3 percent poverty rate.