Top Republican officeholders in Tennessee hate unions. I mean they really hate unions. They hate unions so much they would do just about anything to defeat them.
Two years ago, the Republican supermajority in the state General Assembly took great glee in gutting the collective bargaining rights of the Tennessee Education Association. Legislators have vowed to do much worse to any public union that even dares to stick a nose in Tennessee.
That’s because Republican leaders in this state hate unions. Hate them!
United Auto Workers knew it wasn’t going to be easy to unionize the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga. What they probably didn’t expect, however, was a full frontal assault by the state’s highest-ranking GOPers just as voting on the union was beginning.
Gov. Bill Haslam really hates unions and warned VW officials that if they wanted any more sweet deals from the state, they should really hate unions, too. If the UAW were allowed to set up shop in Chattanooga, Haslam said it would be bad news for the entire state.
“One of my jobs is to recruit companies to Tennessee,” Haslam told me earlier this month. “I think a union would make our job much more difficult.”
Tennessee prides itself as a “right-to-work state,” although some pro-union activists say it is more aptly “a right-to-work- for-minimum-wage” state. Top Republicans here and in the rest of the South say unions are job-killing beasts that force companies to go where labor costs are cheaper.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says that’s why we don’t need their kind here in Tennessee. Corker helped to recruit VW to Tennessee. The former Chattanooga mayor takes great pride in that fact, and told the Reuters news service earlier this month that he felt a moral obligation to warn VW employees about what might happen if they voted to unionize.
“I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga,” Corker said.
Corker wouldn’t say who gave him this juicy piece of information, and he was careful to note that it might not necessarily be someone from VW. It didn’t take a Ph.D. in economics, however, to read the message Corker was squeezing in between the lines: Unionization would see those jobs go elsewhere.
After three days of balloting, 54 percent of the Chattanooga plant’s hourly workers voted to reject the union. Because Tennessee is indeed a “right-to-work state,” the cards were stacked already against the UAW. But that wasn’t good enough for Corker and his GOP colleagues. They wanted also to determine how those marked cards were dealt. In doing so, some analysts believe Republicans have inadvertently helped unions gain some sympathy in the South.
More problematic for everyone involved, however, is that Corker’s comments may have actually hurt the chances for an expansion of VW elsewhere in this country. Writing for the Huffington Post last week, Ashley Altmont reported the union vote in Chattanooga has repercussions that reach much farther than Tennessee. Chattanooga is now the only Volkswagen plant in the world that doesn’t have a formal mechanism for workers’ representation.
Altmont writes that the German “co-determination” model mandates works councils that connect employees to management. Bernd Osterloh, the head of Volkswagen’s works council, told the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the outcome of the Chattanooga vote will make the automaker hesitate to expand anywhere in the South.
“I can imagine fairly well that another VW factory in the United States, provided that one more should still be set up there, does not necessarily have to be assigned to the South again,” Osterloh said. “If co-determination isn’t guaranteed in the first place, we as workers will hardly be able to vote in favor of building another plant.”
Osterloh also told Sueddeutsche Zeitung he believes Corker may have crossed the line with his comments about the bright future of the VW plant without the UAW.
“The conservatives stirred up massive, anti-union sentiments,” Osterloh said. “It’s possible that the conclusion will be drawn that this interference amounted to unfair labor practice.”
Corker, on the other hand, says he has a clear conscience on the matter. The state’s junior senator says he did what had to be done.
Because he really hates unions. Hates them!
Robert Houk is Opinion page
editor for the Johnson City Press.
He can be reached at