Why Right-Wing Lawmakers Are Desperate to Stop a Union Vote in Tennessee

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Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at the plant will decide in a three-day vote Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at the plant will decide in a three-day vote Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

For years, economist Dean Baker has waged a lonely campaign urging  progressives to stop accusing business-friendly politicians of being “free-market fundamentalists.” In his 2011 book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, he wrote, “The vast majority of the right does not give a damn about free markets; it just wants to redistribute income upward.” Today, you don’t need to look any further than Tennessee for proof that the “free market” rhetoric of business-friendly politicians is in fact thin cover for favoring the investor class over workers and the environment.

In the Volunteer State, Volkswagen determined that it can gain a competitive advantage by establishing a workers’ council — a structure that gives employees a voice in a plant’s management — and remaining neutral in a vote on whether its workers will be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW).

VW is basing its decisions on past experience. Workers councils are required by law in Germany, and they’ve proven good for both labor and management across Europe. Studies show that councils in union shops lead to both higher productivity and better wages. Engaged workers also take a longer view of their employer’s financial position — which in tough times makes them more likely to offer concessions to management.

All but three of VW’s 106 plants worldwide have workers’ councils – two of those without are in China, the other is the company’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Under US labor law, VW cannot form a workers’ council unless its factory is unionized.

If VW’s 1,500 Tennessee workers choose to be represented by the UAW during a three-day election process that began yesterday, the company would become the first foreign auto-manufacturer to have a union shop in the South, and its workers’ council might become a model for other companies to emulate.

That prospect has driven conservative Tennessee lawmakers up the wall. Rightwingers who profess a love for “limited government” are threatening legislative reprisals against Volkswagen’s workers should they opt for unionization. And not just its workers — according to the Detroit Free-Press, their campaign has becomeas much a fight with Volkswagen management as with the UAW.”

State Sen. Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga) told the Free-Press, “Should the workers choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.” State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat, responded, “In my 20 years… I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company.”

Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam was more circumspect but no less clear. His spokesman said, “Any discussions of incentives are part of additional and continued talks with VW, which we look forward to.” In other words, nice tax break you’ve got there, Volkswagen — it’d be a shame if something happened to it.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) took a different approach, claiming that VW officials had secretly told him 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.” VW officials responded with a terse press release saying, “There is no connection between our Chattanooga employees’ decision about whether to be represented by a union and the decision about where to build” the SUV.

Bo Watson went so far as to call VW’s openness to a union vote “un-American.” Reached by email, Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, responded by asking, “Was Tennessee un-American in 1979, when nearly one in four workers there were union? It’s very American that Tennessee workers didn’t benefit much from productivity growth since 1979, but is that what we want America to be?”

Mishel noted that between 1979, when 24.6 percent of Tennessee’s workforce belonged to a union, and 2013, when that number had fallen to just over six percent, workers’ productivity increased 75.6 percent but median hourly wages only rose 12.5 percent.

Mishel added that these numbers are in keeping “with a larger phenomenon,” and independent research bears that out. A 2007 study by Lonnie Stevans of Hofstra Business School found that in states with “right-to-work” laws like Tennessee’s, there are more businesses, and business owners do better, but hourly wages and household income are both significantly lower.

Despite that, according to In These Times’ labor reporter Mike Elk, lawmakers’ threats to retaliate against VW, combined with a massive campaign by outside anti-union groups, may be working. Wayne Cliett, a VW worker who supports the UAW, told Elk that while his side had momentum, the anti-union campaign “is turning some [people] away that once were supporters.”

There’s a reason the anti-UAW campaign has been so nasty. Tennessee lawmakers are meddling with the freedom of contract of both Volkswagen and its workers because they see empowered working people as a threat to a system that makes business owners richer and their workers poorer. As Harold Meyerson wrote in The American Prospect:

The Republicans’ and the Right-to-Work Committee’s fears are understandable. For decades, the Southern economy has grown chiefly because it’s been a cheap-labor alternative to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast… If unions get a foothold in the South, Americans’ wages might just start leveling up instead of down. What’s more, if unions grow in the South—a region where the union share of the workforce is scarcely more than 5 percent—then the Southern states might see their political balance of power altered. Southern states might start enrolling their voluminous numbers of the poor in programs like Medicaid and passing minimum-wage statutes of their own.

A lot will be riding on this week’s vote.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Andrew L

    Show’s how messed up the political system is when legislators actively and without question work against the interest of their own constituents…. Good luck to VW workers and VW. Seems like this German company could teach a lot of folks and companies how to be “American” again by demanding that your voice to be heard.

  • AnnaFrieda

    This contempt for ordinary workers is something truly frightening in this country. But even worse is that so many ordinary workers are voting for these right-wing thugs.

  • Mary Forbes

    VW, go to Michigan.

  • Anonymous

    Corker ought to be ashamed of himself. It was embarrassing enough when he all but gave Jamie Dimon a blow job, when Dimon was testifying before Corker’s committee. Corker asked him what could congress do to make him more successful. I was watching this on CSPAN and almost threw up.

  • JANK

    Speak up America. Speak up LOUDLY. If we do not, we will continue to be run over.

  • Raylusk

    I think it would be great if VW would move its plant to Oregon or California or another union friendly state. This would teach the right wing to quit interfering with the employer employee relationship. Maybe it would also wake up voters to quit voting for the anti-employee right wing politicians. But it isn’t likely to happen.

  • R M-S

    Michigan is now a right-to-work state.

  • Greg Zeglen

    you would rather that VW locate their plants in another state rather than facilitate a chance at income leveling in the south…….OK but it isn’t being pro-growth for the auto workers and their union in southern states……this attitude may be the reason Unions represent such a small percentage of workers compared to years ago…

  • JohnM954

    Great article … finally something that adds to the conversation instead of regurgitating old material!

  • sirald66

    What about VW in Detroit? There is a whole city waiting to live again.

  • Raylusk

    No Greg. You can’t speak for me. I would rather the right wing quit attacking unions. The reason union membership is so low is because the right wing passed laws that were anti-union. I suspect you know that. Have you ever wondered why over the last 40 years the middle class has seen their share of the nations wealth decline while the wealthy have seen it go up to where it is now at a historical record? I have and I have come to the conclusion that it is a result of politicians primarily on the right attacking unions and writing laws including tax code that benefit the wealthy. Look at the States that have the so called right to work laws. You will find they are also the states that have the most poverty. I was a Republican for almost 35 years and at one time even supported the anti-union laws passed by the right. But after looking at what those laws have done to the wealth distribution in this country I left the Republicsn party and changed my views. All the information I provided here is easily found you just have to look.

    The only reason I wrote my post is that I don’t believe politicians should interfere with the employer employee relationship and that is exactly what is happening in this case. Right to work laws also interfere with that relationship. Unless an employer does something that discriminates against certain employees the government should stay out of it. It’s as simple as that and if moving the VW plant accomplishes sending that message then so be it.

    I have no interest in debating this with you further so you can respond or not. But if you respond I am likely to not respond back. Oh one final thing did you see in the article where VW said that Senator Corker’s statement wasn’t correct? That alone should make you suspicious of the right wing politicians and there attempt to interfere in this issue.

  • Greg Zeglen

    I did not speak for you …only posed a question….in typically textbook liberal fashion you chose not to answer it but to put your own spin on what you had already posted in an uneven attempt to bolster your position…labor union membership has declined because people have tired of giving money to support causes they do not believe in or to line union leaders pockets and get no reasonable return in contracts for which they are often forced to go on strike…..

  • Kathi Geukes

    Not for long…..it’s in front of the courts as we speak…seems Snydley and his cohorts broke the law by implementing it and striking down a legitimate vote against it…may be reversed any day…:)

  • Sani Fornus

    And left-wing politicians want a union to extort money from the workers and give it to the Democrats

  • Michael Johnston

    Greg so little time and so much to cover. 1st., union membership has declined because of archaic laws according to non-liberal biz publication Bloomberg, Canada still up with same workforce and American companies; 2nd, strikes have been a non-factor since the 1980’s, lowest in over 90 years, and under the Beck decision workers do not have to contribute to union political funds. American workers have been trying to bring up their standard of living since Ben Franklin supported the striking printers of 1786, Lincoln in the 1860’s, Mark Twain, a life long union member, Einstein who was a charter organizer of his teacher’s local at Princeton, and even blind Helen Keller was an ardent union member. Seems VW workers are in very good company. Patriots, the world’s smartest man, and even the blind can see that unions have been the way the middle class grew and grows. Why do you distort the history of the 99%? Methinks you’ve been getting the bumRush?

  • Bill

    You want gov’t out of private business? Does this include gov’t agencies like OSHAA? The politicians are involved b/c the corporations pay them to be. It is called lobbying. ALL UNIONS DO THE EXACT SAME THING.

  • Bernie Burnbaum

    Four Pinnochios on this article.

  • Bernie Burnbaum

    Painfully naive.

  • JonThomas

    Just a bit of background for the discussion. If Volkswagen makes any choice about moving, it will probably go to Mexico, not another U.S. state.

    They have already announced that the new vehicle line they are deciding about adding (as spoken of in the article) is now narrowed down to the Chattanooga plant or Mexico.

    They do want to produce it at Chattanooga they said, because they already have the land right there on site, and because the shipping costs would be lower. However, if the State decides to retaliate against a yes vote on the union, and denies the building permits and incentives, they’ve said that they are ready to bring the new lines to Mexico.

  • MrM3000

    Here is a simple question for you: What decade do you think this is?

  • Mark Swantkowski

    I don’t understand all this… Republicans ARE for change: They get all the real money, and we get the change… (m.)

  • MrM3000

    Why would you want OSHAA out of the workplace? What would you stand to gain?

  • Mickey Askins

    Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have stood in the way of workers rights, under some misguided anti government movement they follow that mantra like zombies. It is time to excise these neanderthals from politics and make progress on all fronts, not just for the 1%.

  • Daniel

    Wouldn’t it be appropriate to point out the specifics rather than just calling someone a liar.

  • Daniel

    I make far more money as a union electrician than what I have to pay in union dues.

  • Anonymous

    Union dues do not fund politicians. Never have. They have different ways of you signing up to give, just like the companies can ask you as a worker to give..

  • Anonymous

    VW is not lobbying them to sway the vote.

  • Davis

    Oh Moyers….so funny….so ignorant

  • Anonymous

    can we leave Neanderthals out of this, they really were a lot smarter than they have been given credit for. And since many of us carry Neanderthal and Denisnovan DNA, we should be kinder to our ancestors.

    It is time to excise the obstructionists….and demand we get critically thinking skills taught in our schools and make it mandatory. It might help clear away some of the cobwebs.

    Voters need to think bigger than just an election and start getting involved. The fact that we allow congress, with its 10% approval rating to be retained at a 90% rate shows that we aren’t doing enough to get our voices heard. If we don’t care that we don’t have better representation, we don’t really deserve better.

  • Anonymous

    and they will go after the change next

    Don’t forget, Romney said in one of the republican debates that in his America, we would have to rewrite the American Dream to exclude both college for OUR kids and homeownership for them too. That wages would be so low that it wouldn’t justify the costs. “We need to become a nation of renters”.

    And Newt advocated that we put 9 yr olds to work “under the care of a master janitor” so they “could learn a trade”. Three states, MO, MI, and ME have tried to repeal child labor laws going back at least to the spring of 2010.

    They want to take everything away that would benefit us in anyway……they will come after the change when there is nothing left.

  • Anonymous

    it is very easy to make claims. They are meaningless unless there is fact or logical thought to support them.

  • Anonymous

    my spouse worked for a republican influenced international business and each year we got a huge envelope in the mail, filled with information of just what the company PAC had accomplished the year before.

    There was no threats of job loss if one didn’t participate but there were plenty of suggestions about how well the COMPANY and that INDUSTRY would do if the employees would contribute a set percent of their salary to the PAC. And a vague promise that if the company did better so would the employees, which never seemed to happen although the company did well.

    We never contributed and it didn’t seem to affect his job because of his job skills, but other employees felt if they didn’t contribute they wouldn’t get promoted. Most of his co-workers felt obligated although they didn’t want to.

  • Anonymous

    are you old enough to remember Patty Hearst? After being kidnaped she seems to have identified with her captures…..for survival….I think these right wing low information voters actually believe if they vote the way that the GOP tell them that crumbs will get thrown to them and they at least will be ok.

    I read sometime ago that children who are physically abused, often try their hardest to please the abusing parent, sometimes turning against the other parent, in hopes of not getting beaten by the abuser. It just seems like conservatives are like that.

  • Anonymous

    if you repost that, I will ‘like’ it again.

  • Cracker Digestive

    You posed no question. I quote you directly, “you would rather that VW locate their plants in another state rather
    than facilitate a chance at income leveling in the south…….”. So you did speak for him. You asserted he would rather have VW locate in other states.
    Further he responds to your assertion that dwindling union membership is due to “this attitude” directly by referring to numerous laws passed by R’s to thwart unionization and decrease union membership.
    In the middle of your paragraph you make a statement which is difficult if not impossible from which to construe meaning or intent. I again quote you directly, “OK but it isn’t being pro-growth for the auto workers and their union in southern states”. I would haveno idea how to respond to that unless I knew exatly what you meant by “it”.
    So the typical textbook fashioning has been on your part only. Revisionist and inaccurate while accusing him of spin! ROFL
    You crack me up!

  • Anonymous

    That is an extremely dishonest statement. The AFL-CIO generally and the UAW specifically, give millions each election year in cash and in kind donations of time and material to the candidates of the Democratic Party and the organization as a whole. That you be so brazen as to deny the truth in that matter is stunning.

  • Anonymous

    It’s time for the UAW to go back to Michigan and continue plotting how to destroy Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

    Thankfully, my family can keep buying VWs. If the UAW had won, we’d have not bought another.

  • Anonymous

    ….which is one reason why the growth in auto manufacturing jobs is occurring outside of Michigan.

  • JAH


  • Anonymous

    Well it’s all moot now, the workers of the VW plant voted no, and in huge numbers.

  • Anonymous

    Who do Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, U.S. Senator Bob Corker, and
    their political playmates in their state’s legislature think they are?
    Just for that, Volkswagen *and* its workers should have all but rammed a
    pro-union vote down these economic terrorists’ throats — and made them
    like it. We will stop such blackmail only when we stop giving in to it
    and show its practitioners the door — preferably one with steel bars.

    As the story notes, Tennessee lawmaker Craig Fitzhugh said, “In my 20
    years on the hill, I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the
    affairs of a private company.”

    *Interesting how quickly so
    many “conservatives” in Tennessee government are soooooo quick to
    interfere with the private sector and its “free market” when it doesn’t
    give them exactly what they want.* What despicable hypocrites.

    This is a perfect example of many right-wingers’ dangerous obsession
    with power and control at practically *all* costs. Time we take them in
    firm, hard hand and, politically, economically, socially, and legally,
    forever cripple them and put them back in their place.

  • Anonymous

    It will make me want to buy a VW but this time small to be replaced by safety, safety, and more safety which means less fuel, tied to safety, tied to less fuel, and tied to making them go slower and at the pace of life. That is the only bug on my window of great expectations.

  • Rick

    It got voted down.Shows how afraid people are of the threats of it’s own Government and its retaliation.

  • Anonymous

    They act like unions are the only ones that do it. That is why they want to gut unions…Level the playing field down to only them.

  • Anonymous

    I can bet you the top management do not send their kids to public schools in those states…I forgot..They make so much money paying low wages, private schools are where their kids go. I can bet ya the workers don’t make enough money to educate their kids good. The test scores of the southern states proves it.

  • JonThomas

    A few people have commented about the reasons the vote was lost, so posting without the using the ‘reply’ feature may be best for this comment.

    The vote was close. I live in Tennessee, not too far from Chattanooga, and believe me, the results were much closer than many would have thought them to be. I think it scared a few who were expecting a rout.

    I personally am appalled (though not surprised) with the role that certain politicians played, but believe it or not, that didn’t go over too well, even with those who identify as Republicans, and the with the Tea Party.

    A lot of people are already losing faith in Gov. Haslam. The scandal in the nearby, Knoxville based Pilot Corporation directly involves the Governor’s brother Jim Haslam, and even without direct evidence, as President of the company people are suspicious of the Governor’s knowledge of what was happening in the family business. Jim Haslam was the State co-chair for the Romney campaign.

    Sen. Bob Corker was Jimmy Haslam’s college roommate, and Jimmy was the financial manager for the Senator’s campaign.

    These families are very powerful in Tennessee.

    Related to the influence of these people, most who live here hate unions. I mean, like the ones you are hearing in the national spotlight… THEY HATE UNIONS!

    The reasons they give are nearly all based, not on experience, or reality, but for the most part, perceptions.

    They perceive the unions as having bad reputations. Many resent high paid union insiders – people who work for the unions, get paid more than the working membership, and live high off of member dues.

    Many believe the unions are to blame for the downfall of Detroit and the American auto industry.in general.

    They have the image of corrupt mafia types running the unions.

    Generally, people in this area feel that unions will cause industry to go elsewhere.

    Now, I’m not saying these perceptions of unions are correct or incorrect, I’m saying that these are the prevailing attitudes.

    One thing I found interesting on a local discussion board… If the federal labor laws allowed the factory to have an in-house Works Council, without having to bring in the national unions, nearly everyone would have accepted the idea.

    A true Local union of VW workers (not a Union Local,) in that plant, working together to meet with management would seem to have been an agreeable idea. The majority in this area resent outside interference.

  • Anonymous

    unions were the balance that checked the others

  • Anonymous

    They want low wages and no benefits. That is pretty much what they got.

  • Mark Caldwell

    Unions have metastasized into political machinations of the socialist and collectivist wing of national politics.

    The unions have seized as much power as possible, punishing workers who
    do not tow a specific political ideology. Unions seek to gain maximum
    power over a factory or company even if it means running that business
    out of town (destroying all potential employment opportunities) or
    bankrupting them with work stoppages(coercion). The benefits of unions
    and what they did for workers years ago is history, and no longer
    necessary. Now they are politically affiliated groups which are an open
    threat to actual free market capitalism and individual freedoms. They
    lie and still profess to be looking out for the individual, and that
    couldn’t be farther from the truth. Voters in states have a right to
    protect themselves from self righteous political ideologues wielding
    power through unions that they happen to lead.