How Fear Beat the UAW in Tennessee

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Retired circuit judge Sam Payne, left, announces that Volkswagen employees voted to deny representation by the United Auto Workers union as Frank Fischer, Chairman and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, center, and Gary Casteel, UAW Region 8 Director, look on from behind, Feb. 14, 2014, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry)

Retired circuit judge Sam Payne, left, announces that Volkswagen employees voted to deny representation by the United Auto Workers union as Frank Fischer, Chairman and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, center, and Gary Casteel, UAW Region 8 Director, look on from behind, Feb. 14, 2014, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry)

On Friday, a three-day election process ended when Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) 712 to 626.

Coming into the vote, both sides knew what was at stake — the union drive was a direct threat to the low-wage economy on which the South’s manufacturing base has been built.

Deep-pocketed union-busters mounted a coordinated campaign against organized labor. They even told Tennesseans that the union wanted to take their guns. And Stephen Greenhouse reported for The New York Times that “Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, helped underwrite a new group, the Center for Worker Freedom, that put up 13 billboards in Chattanooga, warning that the city might become the next Detroit if the workers voted for the union.”

What’s more, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said that a ‘yes’ vote would result in the company losing its tax incentives. A powerful state lawmaker called the union drive “un-American,” and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said that he’d been secretly assured that a ‘no’ vote would win the plant the production of a new SUV — a claim the company flatly denied.

Fear campaigns work best in an economy where working people have every reason to be afraid, so the threats were especially potent in a state with an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly high at around eight percent. Tennessee has the fifth lowest median household income in the US.

American unions are accustomed to having adversarial relationships with employers, but in this case the European company publicly maintained strict neutrality on the vote, allowing organizers and anti-union groups to come into the plant and give presentations to its workforce.

Volkswagen is a progressive employer that offers decent wages and benefits. And its Chattanooga facility hasn’t had workplace safety issues like those that have plagued Nissan’s Tennessee plant. The company wants to create the first workers council in the US. The councils give workers a voice in a plant’s operations, and based on its experience in other factories around the world, Volkswagen believed it would give the firm a competitive advantage through streamlined manufacturing processes, lower turnover and ultimately, higher productivity. Under US labor law, a workers’ council can only be created with a union workforce.

In a statement, the UAW said, “We’re outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering with the basic legal right of workers to form a union.” It  could ask the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the vote as a result of all the outside interference — and there was some indication that it would after the ballots were tallied — but that would be a long shot.

This was a major blow for an already ailing American labor movement. Art Wheaton, an automotive industry expert at Cornell University’s Worker Institute, told the Los Angeles Times that the loss “significantly diminishes” the UAW’s chances at 10 other foreign-owned auto factories in the South. According to the Times, “since 2011, similar unionization efforts were launched at Nissan plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.”

At the same time, the battle is not over. VW still wants a workers council, and history has shown that it’s not uncommon for workers to go through multiple votes before finally joining a labor union.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for 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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  • JonThomas

    Before this article was posted, I made this comment (minus a few edits) on Joshua Holland’s last article on this subject… … I hope it’s ok to post it here, it does fit here also.

    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, or liked them to be. I think it scared a few who were expecting a rout against the union.

    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. Their move played somewhat poorly even with both – those who identify as Republicans – and those whose thinking is more aligned with the Tea Party.

    A lot of people are already losing faith in Gov. Bill Haslam. The scandal in the nearby Knoxville-based Pilot Corporation involves the Governor’s brother Jimmy 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. Keep in mind, as examples of the influence wielded, the power exerted, and the literal political kinship which exists in the – “it’s a small world after-all” – extreme, almost nobility-like, financial hierarchy of this State, Jimmy Haslam was also 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.

    As you can imagine, the influence of the financial, political, and speech powers that these families and their associates can bring to bear upon the public consciousness, is very powerful in Tennessee.

    Related to the influence of these people, most who live here hate unions and have so for a long time. I mean, in similar fashion to the anti-union voices 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, and yes this does make people living here, one of the poorest States of the country, afraid.

    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 (I mean the locals) would have accepted the idea.

    Just as there was some anti-interference sentiments against the Governor, Sen. Corker, and most other right-wing State politicians, the majority in this area resent outside interference. A true local union of the VW plant workers (not a Union Local beholden to an ‘outside’ national union,) working together to meet with management, would seem to have been agreeable.

  • Anonymous

    Iam almost 72 ,I once asked a young smart ,religious man,what was stronger fear or love,he answered fear.I was in my early 60s and believed love the stronger.Lived and worked in NYC before moving to Miami .I learned about the right to work states,it’s surely a different labor culture.While labor unions can be blind with power ,one voice always speaks better than it fear that speaks with fork tongue.

  • Ellen Wallerstein McDearmont

    And, perception IS reality for most of us.

  • AnnaFrieda

    Thanks, I can’t wait to read it, just put my order in for this book. I have read “What’s the matter with Kansas?” and that explained a lot already but still left me thinking that there has to be more to it. Maybe this book will shed some more light on it, or maybe these people are just so far removed from my reality that I will never understand.

  • Sean Kane

    Grover Norquist needs to be introduced to a piano wire noose

  • Anonymous

    VW may well take offense at Tennessee politicians strong arm tactics and send thosd jobs to Mexico and their next plant to a different state. Tennessee needs VW more than VW needs Tennessee.

  • Anonymous

    People have been brainwashed by Million dollar campaigns paid for by Corporations that want to keep wages, benefits, Low, they PROFIT more….Since Reagan there has been a systematic brainwashing telling people all unions are corrupt, Mob Influenced, and Run by fat cats in big cars….When the Kochs and Karl Rove can spend millions in electoral races and States all over selling the Union as the evil empire…..while wages, and the middle class crumble and believe everything they see and hear from the BIG MONEY…..Sad, Sad, Sad…..Profits soar, 85 people have more wealth then 200 million….$$$$$ ruining our country…..

  • Anonymous

    I am not a big UAW fan, I think that they and their members at one time dropped the ball on reasonable requests and good work habits. As well, you often hear of thing like the difference between the national and local workers as happened with the machinists at Boeing. So, given that VW is a good employer and that there is a great mistrust of the unions and whether or not they are interested in the well being of the worker or of the union, the vote is not surprising.

    That being said, I believe as George Carlin said in his brilliant monologue “They Own You” that can be seen on youtube, that the rich are out to bankrupt the middle class and turn them into fearful “obedient workers”. So Senator Corker and all of his rich cronies would just as soon see the workers on their knees as on their feet.

    So the problem as I see it is that the middle class has been used and abused by both the unions and the politicians. There is no one, and I mean no one, to speak for them. They are frightened about the past, present and future. Maybe if someone like Rand Paul would turn into a populist and fight for the working men and women, they might have a chance. But even the most conservative middle class working person is sooner or later going to realize that they have been abandoned and that they have nothing more to lose. They have no prospect of a better life and that they have been put into a Rube Goldberg economy that keeps their heads just above water, but never on dry land. Historically it has always been at such points of realization and despair that the fuse of revolt has been lit.

  • Anonymous

    The Haslams stole MILLIONS from trucking companies and have paid out Millions to keep themselves out of jail over this Theft of rebate money owed Trucking companys….Pilot Is a joke…

  • Edward98

    Maybe someone has that in the works.

  • Stephen Hamilton

    The problem I have had due to the right to work laws in Tennessee is the fact that it under cuts every wage earner, that is why wages are so low in this state, we have a extreme right wing who believes they are Christians, but in my Bible teaching is a witness against those oppressors, in the book of Malachi ( God’s messenger) 3:5 And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness Against sorcerers, and against adulterers, and Against false witness, and against those who that oppress the wage earners, the widows, and the fatherless, and turn aside the stranger (alien) from his right, and fear not Me says the Lord of hosts. I can say that the fear of God is not in them as such they are not of God, at least not the God in my Bible.

  • Arm of Keaau

    This is one of the problems in the south. The bible has absolutely nothing to do with social-political decisions of those with money and power. You can quote all the scripture you want, but it will not influence or change a thing. (_: FBI

  • Arm of Keaau

    Except why did VW choose Tennessee in the first place? For exactly what was produced in this election. A fear generated campaign by southern Republicons to keep wages low and profits high. (_: FBI

  • kandy830

    my uncle recently got a nearly new black
    Volkswagen Touareg SUV by working off of a pc… blog link C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Tim Kelly

    In the film “inequality for All” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says exactly what you just said: that there is no one to speak for the workers anymore. The great push-back against the social movements of the past, started by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell is almost complete. They want is all.

  • Anonymous

    On the other hand, the clerical workers at the AT&SF Railroad voted to join a clerical workers’ union. The union
    and railroad ratified the contract. Three months later the Railroad got a
    letter from the union demanding that the Information Technology (IT) people join the union. The railroad correctly maintained that IT work was not clerical work. The union maintained that it was. A judge mistakenly ruled that IT work was clerical and the IT people were forced to join the union. None of the IT people wanted to join. The Railroad and IT people fought and lost. Within a year the entire IT department resigned.

  • Paris Pepoon

    Extremely well said!

  • Emily Pickett Smith

    If you treat your employees right, you don’t need a union.

  • DR

    It’s the ultimate irony and clearest example of hypocrisy…and another sad truth that people are basically unthinking cattle more than willing to be led to their own slaughter.

    All these transplant companies — starting with Honda, continuing with Toyota, then Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, VW, etc., located in the south because of one reason: corporate socialism. They built their plants their on the backs of U.S. taxpayers. And they pay slave wages because the fools in those states are used to living in squalor.

    “$10, $15 an hour? Wow, that’s great. I’ll be able to buy a six-pack every couple of days, maybe even some diapers for the little tyke I had with my sister.”

    The comment below that there would be no need for unions if companies treated their employees right is a pipe dream. The very nature of capitalism is AGAINST the individual, AGAINST “right” treatment of employees, AGAINST honorable and responsible presence in the community. It’s a one-way garbage disposal.

  • Larry Rappaport

    Why isn’t the fact VW has already signed to build the SUV plant in Tennessee not reported? C’mon people, this was an open vote in a right to work state. One thing UAW could not offer was any differential as to healthcare. What did you expect?

  • Anonymous

    VW builds Passats in Chattanooga. They have not announced a location for the SUV, but have said the choice is between Mexico and Chattanooga. They had stated previously that they will not build the new line at a plant that does not have labor represented. Thus, Corker was completely lying.

  • Mike B

    Oh look the racist joined the discussion. Interesting that those with hate always want to talk about how much somebody’s clothes cost. When has any First Lady worn cheap clothing? Yet suddenly a certain segment of society is concerned about women’s clothing.


    and emily have you ever seen this in a right to work state? they are right to work because it attracts corporations that pay no taxes and pay nothing to their employees


    because they are uninformed

  • Mikeguru

    Really sad that people are suckered into believing the lies of the Republicans who have stolen three decades of wages destroying the middle class. Have Americans become a bunch of wimps and easily intimidated with threats of losing their jobs. No guts in Tennessee I guess. A bunch of scared back boneless Easily duped by the lies of the Union busters of Wall Street, Billionaires(they became Billionaires by not paying a decent livable wage. Scared and weak.
    But I certainly hope the Unions that I support as an associate who never had a Union to protect me from Corporate Management abuse licks its wounds and presses on as the Unions are the only game in town to prevent the USA from transgressing to a Third World country, a few Rich men in a Poor country as an Oligarchy.
    Get some back bone Tennessee!

  • Philip DiPace

    SERIOUSLY. The company supported employee unionization for chrissakes! Do you all realize how RARE that is?? The GOP is desperate to keep any unions out of as many states as possible—firstly because it drives employees wages up to a more reasonable level, but MAINLY because unions (even though they’re outnumbered 3-to1 by republicans super-pacs) contribute heavily in campaign contributions to elections, both local and national. And they traditionally support political candidates that AREN’T Republicans. THAT’S the real reason they worked against this unionization. It’s all about keeping THEIR VOICES as the dominant influence in electoral politics. Because money = speech, dont’cha know.


    detroit ended up like it did because they had no inovation. no outside of the box just like our congress. VW is a german company and they know how to inovate. this country is so complacent that they are dumbed down .people need to understand we have to exist with a passion and a sense of urgency. detroit built cars that americans wanted i.e. camaroes mustangs dodge charger retooling just to make these cars of the past

  • Mitchell Brown

    Who gets credit for the drop from 2009 to 2013; Walker
    couched the two-point decline as part of “the success” he can point to
    as governor.

    Here’s the timeline:

    — From its 9.2 percent peak in June-July 2009, the rate fell almost
    monthly during the late stages of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s second
    term, dropping 1.4 points to the 7.8 percent mark in December 2010 when
    Doyle left office.

    So exactly two-thirds of the drop Walker mentions happened on his predecessor’s watch.

    — After Walker took office in January 2011, the rate ticked down but
    was essentially flat for nine months before falling slowly to 6.7. Then
    it reversed course early in 2013, taking some of the luster off the
    positive trend. That left the total drop during Walker’s time at 0.7

    So one-third of the drop compared to four years ago came during Walker’s administration.

    Wisconsin’s underperformed the U.S. and Minnesota throughout the
    recession and recovery. The February data show a marked uptick for
    Minnesota over Wisconsin.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Minnesota and Wisconsin share much more than bone-chilling winters:
    German and Northern European roots; farming; and, until recently, a
    populist progressive tradition stretching back a century to Wisconsin’s
    Fighting Bob La Follette and the birth of Minnesota’s
    Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

    But in 2010 these cousin states diverged. By doing so they began a
    natural experiment that compares the agendas of modern progressivism and
    the new right. Wisconsin elected Republicans to majorities in the
    Legislature and selected a bold and vigorous Republican governor, Scott
    Walker. Minnesotans elected one of the most progressive candidates for
    governor in the country, Mark Dayton of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor

    Three years into Mr. Walker’s term, Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in
    job creation and economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Walker promised to produce 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but a year before the next election that number is less than 90,000. Wisconsin ranks 34th
    for job growth. Mr. Walker’s defenders blame the higher spending and
    taxes of his Democratic predecessor for these disappointments, but
    according to Forbes’s annual list of best states for business, Wisconsin
    continues to rank in the bottom half.

    Along with California, Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota
    as the eighth best state for business. Republicans deserve some of the
    credit, particularly for their commitment to education reform. They also
    argue that Minnesota’s new growth stems from the low taxes and reduced
    spending under Mr. Dayton’s Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty. But
    Minnesota’s job growth was subpar during Mr. Pawlenty’s eight-year
    tenure and recovered only under Mr. Dayton.

    The lion’s share of Minnesota’s new tax revenue was sunk into human
    capital. While the state’s Constitution required that half of the new
    revenue balance the budget in 2013, Mr. Dayton invested 71 percent of
    the remaining funds in K-12 schools and higher education as well as a
    pair of firsts: all-day kindergarten and wider access to early childhood
    education. Minnesota was one of the few states that raised education
    spending under the cloud of the Great Recession.

    By contrast, Mr. Walker’s strategy limited Wisconsin’s ability to invest
    in infrastructure that would have catalyzed private-sector expansion,
    and he cut state funding of K-12 schools by more than 15 percent. Per
    student, this was the seventh sharpest decline in the country.

    Health care presents another difference. When Mr. Walker refused to
    establish a state health insurance exchange or to expand Medicaid, even
    though the federal government covered all costs for three years and most
    costs after that, ideology trumped pragmatism. The uninsured and the
    ill bear the burden. Many of the 10 percent of uninsured Wisconsinites
    were denied new Medicaid benefits and were shunted off to the federal
    exchange’s stumbling website.

  • Anonymous

    WI fell from 11th to 37th in job creation under Walker. It’s a disaster.

  • Anonymous

    All because unions had become too weak to influence trade policy.

  • Anonymous

    Nobody can be forced to join a union. That’s illegal in all 50 states.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Unionized workers aren’t the ones making the decisions on materials, design or supply chains. It was the well-paid executives who made all of those decisions. The only things unions do is prevent these morons from pocketing all of the profits and making more bad decisions as to how lousy they’ll treat the workers. German companies have unions. It was Germany that first came up with the idea of pensions – government pensions – also known as Social Security. Look up Otto von Bismark. Do you know who he is? If you don’t, you’re not worth listening to.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Detroit was ruined by a lousy executive class. It was the executives that made design decisions. It was executives that chose lousy materials. It was executives that decided they’d save money on lousy parts. It was executives that made decisions not to focus on an export market while learning what other markets wanted. When congress came out with CAFE standards the Japanese hired a 100 engineers and said “lets go to work.” Detroit hired a 100 lawyers and said “lets go to court.” It was Ford executives who consulted with their lawyers when they learned the Pinto had a fatal design flaw (literally fatal) that could kill due to a poorly designed fuel tank placement. They decided it was cheaper to simply pay the families of the deceased rather than recall and design their car properly. No unionized line worker was involved in any of these decisions. None. Not one. Nada. Jim, you’re a bad joke.

  • Mitchell Brown

    You’re dishonest – aka, a liar. You’re well aware that NLRA law which protects people from having to join unions doesn’t cover airlines or railroads. Most employees are not told by their employer and union that full union membership cannot lawfully be required. In Pattern Makers v. NLRB, 473 U.S. 95 (1985), the United States Supreme Court held that union members have the right to resign their union membership at any time. Hey, kelemi, is that an example of the SCOTUS legislating from the bench? (he’ll like this ruling so my guess is no. “Activist judges” is just euphemism for “I don’t like that ruling”).

    If you are not a member, you are still fully covered by the collective
    bargaining agreement that was negotiated between your employer and the
    union, and the union is obligated to represent you. Any benefits that
    are provided to you by your employer pursuant to the collective
    bargaining agreement (e.g., wages, seniority, vacations, pensions,

    health insurance)are
    not affected by your nonmembership. (If the union offers some
    “members-only” benefits, you might be excluded from receiving those.)

    – Look at these scum bags who will rail against unions but they’ll take the benefits the unions have fought tooth and nail for. Just like that swine Joe the Plumber. I wonder why he didn’t take minimum wage and no health benefits? Oh yeah, he’s a “conservative” scum bag.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Oh, and you might ask why railroads (and airlines) are governed under separate acts. (actually I doubt you would since you take your orders from The Far Hard Right John Birch Society) Railroad strikes were generally put down when the owners, being well connected with the powers in Washington DC and their respective state capitols, called in federal troops to kill the strikers.

    The RLA was the product of negotiations between the major railroad companies and the unions that represented their employees.
    Like its predecessors, it relied on boards of adjustment, established
    by the parties, to resolve labor disputes, with a government-appointed
    Board of Mediation to attempt to resolve those disputes that board of
    adjustment could not. The RLA promoted voluntary arbitration as the best
    method for resolving those disputes that the Board of Mediation could
    not settle.

    Congress strengthened these procedures in the 1934 amendments to the
    Act, which created a procedure for resolving whether a union had the support
    of the majority of employees in a particular “craft or class,” while
    turning the Board of Mediation into a permanent agency, the National Mediation Board (NMB), with broader powers.

    Congress extended the RLA to cover airline employees in 1936.

    So, it would be impossible for the IT folks to be forced to join the union without a majority decision to do so. Why don’t you link some info corroborating your specious claims?

  • Goshen

    North and South Carolina are in a race to the bottom. Big business has many of the politicians in their back pocket. When an aide to the governor texted Boeing, about locating a plant here, he said that we (NC) would do “anything” to get Boeing to locate a plant here, instead of Washington state or any other location. The workers in the Boeing plant make 40% less than their counterparts in the Seattle area (The cost of living in the Charleston area is only 12% less than in the Seattle Area) The jets manufactured in both locations sell for the same price. I”m surprised that the N.C Governor’s aid didn’t offer to provide workers at 50% of what the workers make in Washington state. “Anything” sounds like prostitution to me. I say vote the pawns outof office.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, you’re the liar. This was written in Computer World when it happened. It took place in the 1970s. The laws probably were different then.

    Speaking of Joe the Plumber, check this out: He had to join a union to be hired by Chrysler.

  • Anonymous

    Naturally you assume that I take orders from the John Birch Society because I criticize one thing that I feel that a union did that was wrong.

    That would explain why I voted democratic in every presidential election since 1980. It would also explain why I opposed the Vietnam wra, and our invading Iraq in 2002. It would also explain why I support separation of religion and government.

    The story was written in Computer World. It took place on the 1970s.

    Get real.

  • moderator

    Hey Mitchell Brown and kelemi,

    Let’s stick to discourse and avoid name calling. It might help to take a quick look at our comment policy.


    Sean @ Moyers

  • moderator

    Hey Kelemi and Mitchell Brown,

    Let’s stick to discourse and avoid name calling. It might help to take a quick look at our comment policy.

    Sean @ Moyers

  • Anonymous

    I agree..

  • Ed

    I won’t argue with your numbers, which may or may not be accurate. What I will argue with is a much bigger picture than simply comparing those numbers right now, at this point in time. Every economic indicator is showing us that we are going to continue losing jobs like the ones in Seattle. If the jobs can stay in the US, temporarily while the world markets stabilize on a more equal footing (which is happening rapidly), then we have a much greater chance of rapid growth in the future. Maybe people need to start looking at much more abstract and complicated factors, which require their own education and effort, and stop looking at our problems through blinders.

    Right now in America, you have two political parties with very different problems. One uses ignorant people to control them, and it think they actually believe some of their policies are good ones. But, their policies are destroying the country and will continue to. The other party simply believes in sticking with the principles that the country was founded upon, which obviously worked by the way, but cannot communicate anything about their visions or understandings in a remotely effective manner. Both are failures. Both should be ignored for being failures. Accepting either party at this point in time is just giving up and hoping for the best. We don’t need more hope. We need more action from Americans.

  • Ed

    They pay if they want to. Are you implying VW wants to pay more and can’t without a middleman telling them to? That’s what I’m hearing over and over and it just makes no sense at all.