Sunday night’s snowstorm in Washington, D.C. likely lowered the turnout for a Heritage Foundation panel on the defeat of the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) election in February at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. But the sparse attendance seemed to make the roughly ten people that gathered Monday afternoon at the Lehrman Auditorium chummier than usual.
“Do we start a cheering section?” asked one audience member before the panel, gesturing toward Matt Patterson, head of the Americans for Tax Reform-funded Center for Worker Freedom (CWF), which played a crucial role in defeating the UAW’s union drive at the Volkswagen plant. “Matt! Matt! Matt!” he began chanting, drawing a few chuckles.
Off-mic but onstage, the panelists were still getting ready to begin, when, from my seat in the front-row, I caught a joke that one of them, James Sherk, whispered to Patterson. “How many union members does it take to change a light bulb?” asked Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics for Heritage.
“Ten,” Sherk explained: four to change the light bulb and six to sit around doing nothing.
It’s a variant of an old anti-union joke—emblematic, it seemed, of the panelists’ attitude toward the labor movement in general. During the panel discussion, Sherk argued that unions embody an antiquated, overly adversarial — and ultimately unpopular — form of collective bargaining. Workers deserve a voice on the job and “companies would like to hear from their workers,” he said, but today’s labor law forces workers into making an “all-or-nothing choice.” Alternative structures for labor-management dialogue like VW’s famed works councils, Sherk bemoaned, are only allowed if workers decide to form a union. He called on Congress to reform the landmark National Labor Relations Act and get rid of this “anachronism.”
There’s nothing old-fashioned about the gap between union and non-union wages, the former are about 27 percent higher than the latter. And one can’t help but wonder if people like Sherk, deep down in their anti-union hearts, would really just prefer a return to the good old days of company unions. Sherk wants to scrap an NLRA provision outlawing these once-popular tools of union busters.
But the event wasn’t all run-of-the-mill union-bashing. The panel also featured an analysis of how anti-union forces were able to pull off what they regard as an improbable victory in Chattanooga.
Matt Patterson argued the UAW’s loss stemmed, in part, from its inability to engage with the broader Chattanooga community—a critique shared by some local pro-union activists, as In These Times’ Mike Elk has reported. Patterson said that the Center for Worker Freedom, by contrast, focused its efforts on “coalition building.”
“Workers don’t operate in a vacuum,” Patterson told the crowd. “They operate in a community.”
Since “the union had complete access to the workers at the plant,” he said, “we took our message to the airwaves, the newspapers. … I thought, if we can put pressure on the workers through their co-workers, their family, their friends, that would create a lot of friction for the union.”
“I started asking people in the town, ‘What do you think of the UAW?’ ” Patterson said of his early days in Chattanooga, about a year ago. “I’d walk into a restaurant and ask the hostess. … Then I would ask the manager. Then I would ask the owner. … I would listen to the needs of the community and the questions they were asking about this union and what it would mean for them. And then I crafted my messages, my op-eds, et cetera based on what I was hearing.”
Finding that Chattanoogans were not very familiar with the UAW, Patterson said that his group eventually focused on getting two key messages across — that the UAW bankrupts companies when it represents their workers and that the union supports a radical liberal agenda. The CWF broadcast that message by holding town hall meetings and public events, penning op-eds and blog posts, and posting on social media. The group also put up billboards blasting the UAW.
Patterson said these efforts met little opposition from the union.
“I think they underestimated the resistance from the community,” he said. “They certainly didn’t push back on [the anti-UAW arguments] in any real significant way. So I can only assume that they thought that that wouldn’t matter as long as they had the workers in their jaws.”
Of course, Patterson’s group wasn’t the only outside force to oppose the union. Prominent Tennessee Republicans, both on the state and federal level, vilified the UAW in the run-up to the vote. Meanwhile the National Right to Work Foundation mounted legal challenges aimed at weakening the UAW. A group called Southern Momentum, backed by some anti-union workers at the plant, reportedly raised $100,000 to fight the union drive. That money helped outfit the No 2 UAW committee at the plant with flyers and 800 anti-UAW T‑shirts.
Patterson said during the panel that he wasn’t paid at all by Southern Momentum for any of his work. When In These Times pressed him later, he declined to reveal the funding source of his work with Americans for Tax Reform.
“We don’t talk about donors,” Patterson says. “Our donors are confidential.”
As a 501©4 organization, Americans for Tax Reform is tax-exempt, but not required to disclose its revenue sources.
On February 21, the UAW filed an appeal with the NLRB decrying the interference of outside groups like the CWF. If it sides with the union, the labor board could call for another election. As a result, Norquist’s forces aren’t planning on leaving southeast Tennessee anytime soon.
“The UAW has made it obvious that they’re not leaving and that they’re going to try again as soon as they can. And we are not leaving either,” Patterson said. “We’re staying, we’re going to keep our message up and we’re going to continue to communicate with the people of Chattanooga.”
UAW is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.