Tenn. Lawmakers Threaten to Block Subsidies If VW Plant Unionizes

Mike Elk

Volkswagen employees go to the polls on Wednesday, but will state politicians' threats affect their union election?

In the run-up to a union elec­tion, work­ers typ­i­cal­ly run a gaunt­let of threats from man­age­ment, includ­ing claims that a vote to union­ize will jeop­ar­dize their jobs by hurt­ing the company’s bot­tom line.

But in the case of an upcom­ing union elec­tion for Volkswagen’s 1,600-worker auto plant in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., set to run from Feb­ru­ary 12 – 14, the com­pa­ny has pledged to remain neu­tral dur­ing the union dri­ve. Last week, Volk­swa­gen even invit­ed the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW), which is vying to rep­re­sent the work­ers, to come and make a pre-elec­tion pre­sen­ta­tion at the plant.

While Volk­swa­gen has vowed not to inter­fere, how­ev­er, out­side forces have picked up the anti-union play­book and are telling work­ers that choos­ing union rep­re­sen­ta­tion could endan­ger their jobs. At a press con­fer­ence on Mon­day, Ten­nessee Repub­li­can State Sen­ate Speak­er Pro Tem­pore Bo Wat­son and Repub­li­can House Major­i­ty Leader Ger­ald McCormick implied that state sub­si­dies to Volk­swa­gen could be blocked if the plant unionizes.

Should the work­ers at Volk­swa­gen choose to be rep­re­sent­ed by the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers, 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,” Wat­son said at a press con­fer­ence Mon­day in Chat­tanooga, accord­ing to online news­pa­per The Chat­tanoogan. The work­ers that will be vot­ing, need to know all of the poten­tial con­se­quences, intend­ed and unin­tend­ed, should they choose to be rep­re­sent­ed by the Unit­ed Auto Workers.”

Democ­rats and union sup­port­ers react­ed with indig­nance to what they per­ceived as a thin­ly-veiled chal­lenge to work­ers’ col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing rights at the behest of state officials.

It’s an out­rage that state Repub­li­can lead­ers would threat­en jobs at the Volk­swa­gen plant by claim­ing they would vote against incen­tives to their employ­er if the work­ers choose to union­ize,” said Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Rep. Sher­ry Jones in a state­ment released by the UAW. We should all reject the type of scare tac­tics and mis­in­for­ma­tion com­ing from spe­cial inter­est groups and Repub­li­can elect­ed officials.”

Though Volk­swa­gen does not oppose union­iza­tion at the Chat­tanooga plant, a fight has been brew­ing with out­side anti-union groups, who are throw­ing their weight around in an attempt to influ­ence the union vote at Volk­swa­gen. In Novem­ber, Work­ing In These Times obtained leaked doc­u­ments from Matt Pat­ter­son, a Grover Norquist-backed polit­i­cal oper­a­tive, out­lin­ing how he intend­ed to spend hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to per­suade work­ers to vote against the UAW. A top anti-union con­sul­tant also told In These Times that nation­al anti-union groups were gear­ing up to fight the UAW at Volk­swa­gen in order to pre­vent the union from gain­ing a foothold as it seeks to orga­nize oth­er plants across the South.

Now, this fight appears to be kick­ing into high gear. Accord­ing to a Feb­ru­ary 4 arti­cle in the Wall Street Jour­nal, the Cen­ter for Work­er Free­dom, a Grover Norquist-backed anti-union group that is an arm of Norquist’s Amer­i­cans for Tax Reform, has booked radio spots to air anti-union ads and rent­ed 13 bill­boards around the city to dis­play anti-UAW messages.

One such bill­board has the words Unit­ed Auto Work­ers” with the word auto” crossed out and sub­sti­tut­ed with the word Oba­ma.” The bill­board also con­tains a spelling error that pro­voked ridicule from some labor activists on Twit­ter: The UAW spends mil­lions to elect lib­er­al polit­i­cans [sic],” the bill­board proclaims.

The bill­board also directs view­ers to the web­site of the Cen­ter for Work­er Free­dom. One Feb­ru­ary 5 blog post fea­tured on the site is titled, UAW Wants Your Guns, Part 1.” In the post, anti-union con­sul­tant Matt Pat­ter­son writes that Rep. Steve Cohen (D‑Tenn.), is only one of many UAW-backed politi­cians who are open­ly hos­tile to the 2nd amend­ment. You can bet that if the union is suc­cess­ful in orga­niz­ing Chattanooga’s Volk­swa­gen plant, they will fund an anti-gun agen­da in Hamil­ton Coun­ty as well.” (In 2012, the UAW gave $10,000 to Rep. Steve Cohen).

Volk­swa­gen work­er Michael Cantrell, a sup­port­er of the UAW, believes that this type of polit­i­cal pos­tur­ing goes too far. The bill­boards, adver­tis­ing and press activ­i­ties by those not even from our com­mu­ni­ty leave a bad taste in my mouth,” Cantrell wrote in the state­ment put out by the UAW. We also placed our trust in elect­ed offi­cials, but they’ve cho­sen to put their own polit­i­cal inter­ests first and they are inter­fer­ing in our elec­tion too.”

Union sup­port­ers fear that the out­side inter­fer­ence is begin­ning to hurt the like­li­hood of a union victory.

Right now my feel­ing is that we are win­ning but the [anti-union work­ers] along with their out­side help is turn­ing some [peo­ple] away that once were sup­port­ers” pro-UAW Volk­swa­gen work­er Wayne Cli­ett tells Work­ing In These Times. I believe we have the votes, [we] just have to make sure every­one of our sup­port­ers votes. I have a good feel­ing about the out­come and at the same time, I’m a lit­tle nervous.”

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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