EXCLUSIVE: Leaked GM Video Raises Questions About Senator Corker’s Anti-Union History

Mike Elk

Some Tennessee leaders say Senator Bob Corker is publicly opposing union drives in order to help with his climb up the political ladder. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Mon­day, the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers announced that they had filed for an elec­tion with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board to rep­re­sent 1,600 work­ers at Volkswagen’s Chat­tanooga facil­i­ty. The vot­ing for the close­ly watched union elec­tion will be held from Feb­ru­ary 12 through the 14. And despite a Grover Norquist-backed polit­i­cal operative’s plan to spend hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on chal­leng­ing the work­ers’ move to orga­nize, Volk­swa­gen itself is not opposed to the union drive. 

Volk­swa­gen Group of Amer­i­ca and the UAW have agreed to this com­mon path for the elec­tion,” said Frank Fis­ch­er, chair­man and chief exec­u­tive of Volk­swa­gen Chat­tanooga in a state­ment. Volk­swa­gen is com­mit­ted to neu­tral­i­ty and calls upon all third par­ties to hon­or the prin­ci­ple of neutrality.”

Sen­a­tor Bob Cork­er (R‑Tenn.) also claims to share in that vision of neu­tral­i­ty. When asked about the elec­tion, he sent a state­ment to the Detroit Free Press that read, Dur­ing the next week and a half, while the deci­sion is in the hands of the employ­ees, I do not think it is appro­pri­ate for me to make addi­tion­al pub­lic comment.” 

Work­ers were opti­mistic that Corker’s state­ment could sig­ni­fy broad­er sup­port for the union across the board. I think this is awe­some!” Volk­swa­gen employ­ee Byron Spencer wrote in a Face­book mes­sage ear­ly Tues­day morn­ing. I think this is a real sign we are gain­ing momen­tum here and Cork­er is chang­ing his tune as wind changes direction.”

And such a sen­ti­ment is arguably out of char­ac­ter for Cork­er, who has spent the past six months cam­paign­ing vig­or­ous­ly against the union’s expan­sion at Volk­swa­gen. For [Volk­swa­gen] man­age­ment to invite the UAW in is almost beyond belief,” Cork­er told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press in a wide­ly cit­ed inter­view in Sep­tem­ber. They will become the object of many busi­ness school stud­ies — and I’m a lit­tle wor­ried could become a laugh­ing­stock in many ways — if they inflict this wound.”

In addi­tion, Cork­er has fre­quent­ly referred to his expe­ri­ences tour­ing the union­ized GM plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. as evi­dence against orga­niz­ing in Chat­tanooga. When the UAW tried to say it would be able to work close­ly with VW man­age­ment on a new­ly designed works coun­cil,” Cork­er told Chat­tanooga Times Free Press that he doubt­ed this would hap­pen, giv­en that they were the exact same peo­ple who orga­nized Spring Hill … I don’t know how they can say they’re the new UAW when the same peo­ple … are in lead­er­ship,” Cork­er said.

I wish that peo­ple who care about this issue could have been inside the GM plant at Spring Hill … the envi­ron­ment that the UAW has cre­at­ed is sad to watch,” Cork­er also told the local online news mag­a­zine Nooga​.com in Sep­tem­ber 2013

But Ten­nessee lead­ers say Cork­er hasn’t always regard­ed union dri­ves as such an eco­nom­ic death knell. In fact, on one of the occa­sions that Cork­er toured the union­ized GM plant in Spring Hill, he called the expe­ri­ence uplift­ing” — a far cry from the destruc­tive force” he once claimed the UAW had on the estab­lish­ment. Accord­ing to GM Spring Hill UAW Unit chair Mike Her­ron, Cork­er seemed to be very sup­port­ive of the plant oper­a­tions, which are gov­erned by a co-man­age­ment” board that has been in place between the union and man­age­ment since the 1980s.

In a nev­er-before-released video pro­vid­ed to In These Times by Her­ron, Cork­er said, You know, you hear a lot about dif­fer­ent kind of issues, but there is noth­ing like being here on the ground and sens­ing first­hand the excite­ment about the future here. … I read three news­pa­pers a day and get inun­dat­ed with all kinds of oth­er infor­ma­tion, but it’s oth­ers look­ing at this com­pa­ny from the outside.”

To be here today has been most uplift­ing to me,” he con­tin­ued, and it real­ly will affect me as to how I approach some of the issues into the future know­ing that this com­pa­ny is invest­ing … in employ­ees to make sure that it leads the way into the future. After being here, it even more so makes you want to … [put] in place poli­cies … that cause com­pa­nies like this to thrive.”

Giv­en a peri­od of two months to respond, Sen­a­tor Corker’s office would not clar­i­fy to In These Times why he went from sens­ing the plan­t’s excite­ment about the future” in 2007 to telling the AP in 2013 that he found it to be in not a healthy situation.”

For his part, Her­ron says that Cork­er also made no move to sup­port work­ers dur­ing the plant’s strug­gles dur­ing the height of the eco­nom­ic reces­sion. In 2009, the Spring Hill assem­bly line was closed, and 2,000 union­ized work­ers were laid off. Her­ron says that he watched Cork­er do bat­tle with the CEO of GM and the pres­i­dent of the UAW, instead of ask­ing what would they would do for the auto­mo­tive plant in his state if the loans were approved, like sen­a­tors from oth­er auto indus­try states did. These oth­er states kept their plants open with prod­uct com­mit­ments, while the Spring Hill plant had the assem­bly line come to a halt in 2009.”

In fact, the assem­bly line only re-opened in 2011 as a result of mas­sive wage and ben­e­fit con­ces­sions made by the UAW — includ­ing accept­ing a two-tier wage sys­tem—that made it prof­itable for GM to take work from Mex­i­co and trans­fer it to Spring Hill. And last year, GM announced that they were going to invest $350 mil­lion into the plant and add 1,800 jobs. All this is proof, Her­ron says, that the UAW is not hurt­ing job prospects in Tennessee. 

Mean­while, Cork­er vot­ed against the bailout that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and the UAW wide­ly tout as sav­ing the auto indus­try, say­ing, This admin­is­tra­tion has decid­ed they know bet­ter than our courts and our free mar­ket process how to deal with these com­pa­nies. … This is a major pow­er grab.” 

Her­ron says that while oth­er sen­a­tors made an effort to keep their man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tors thriv­ing, Cork­er did no such thing. Sen­a­tor Cork­er was right in the mid­dle of the [auto bailout] hear­ings and there was a great deal of con­cern that we were not being appro­pri­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed at that lev­el,” he says. All the oth­er elect­ed lead­ers were mak­ing a pitch for their [local] plants — that was­n’t the case for our senator.”

Over­all, Her­ron says, he’s dis­mayed by the senator’s turn toward severe anti-union sen­ti­ment dur­ing the past five years.

But not every­one is sur­prised by the trans­for­ma­tion. Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal activists in Ten­nessee say the sen­a­tor’s increased anti-union sen­ti­ment stems from his desire to run for high­er office. They claim Cork­er is try­ing to shed the label of a D.C. deal­mak­er“ slapped on him by pub­li­ca­tions like Politi­co. In order to shore up his sup­port among grass­roots Tea Par­ty activists, they say, he’s pub­licly fight­ing the UAW.

For­mer Ten­nessee Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty Chair Chip For­rester says that the 2009 bailout hear­ings rep­re­sent­ed a major turn­ing point for Cork­er. As a rel­a­tive­ly unknown fresh­man sen­a­tor, he says, Cork­er was able to gain a reg­u­lar rota­tion on the TV cir­cuit when he opposed the UAW in the bailout. Accord­ing to For­rester, Cork­er real­ized then that he could move up the lad­der in the Repub­li­can Par­ty by lead­ing the charge against the biggest backer of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — orga­nized labor.

“[In the past], he has­n’t been vora­cious about stuff like that, and this is like a new twist. Gen­er­al­ly, he has been on the mod­er­ate side. The whole I am a union-bust­ing kind of guy’ was nev­er a part of his polit­i­cal char­ac­ter.” says For­rester. There are a hun­dred guys and gals who get up in the morn­ing and see Mr. Pres­i­dent’ in the mir­ror. Bob Cork­er is a short lit­tle guy with a big ego. I am sure he har­bors that thought. … Being anti-labor makes sense from that perspective.”

For any­one who was around dur­ing the efforts to help sta­bi­lize the auto indus­try and save jobs at a time when they were reel­ing, this should be no sur­prise,” agrees Jim Man­ley, who was inti­mate­ly involved in the auto bailout deal in the Sen­ate as a top aide to Har­ry Reid (D‑Nev.). When Sen­a­tor Cork­er first entered the nego­ti­a­tions, he appeared to be serv­ing as an hon­est bro­ker, but as pres­sure from some with­in his par­ty grew, he start­ed propos­ing one idea after anoth­er to stick it to the unions.”

As for Corker’s alleged White House goals, Man­ley isn’t so sure. He thinks Cork­er may just be try­ing to move up in the Sen­ate. I’m not so sure if he has pres­i­den­tial ambi­tions, but I do know that he sym­bol­izes the debate with­in a Repub­li­can Par­ty that is still dom­i­nat­ed by the Tea Par­ty and con­ser­v­a­tive activists,” he says.

Over­all, Corker’s motives for his­tor­i­cal­ly oppos­ing the union aren’t clear. But for activists focused on win­ning the union elec­tion this Feb­ru­ary, it doesn’t mat­ter. After all, while Cork­er may have a lot of polit­i­cal influ­ence, he doesn’t have the abil­i­ty to talk to employ­ees all day long on the shop floor. With Volk­swa­gen remain­ing neu­tral, that domain belongs to the work­ers — and ulti­mate­ly, the deci­sion on whether or not to join a union will be up to them.

I think we have a damn good shot,” wrote Volk­swa­gen work­er Byron Spencer on Face­book as he pre­pared for his morn­ing shift at the plant. “[Volk­swa­gen is] giv­ing the union a chance to make a pre­sen­ta­tion at the all-team meet­ing today.” 

Full dis­clo­sure: The author’s moth­er worked on an auto assem­bly line at a VW plant in West­more­land Coun­ty, Pa., until it closed in 1988, and was a mem­ber of UAW. UAW is a web­site spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors have no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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