A ‘Smoking Gun’ in TN Pols’ Anti-UAW Campaign?

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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. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

In February, workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant voted by a narrow margin against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the weeks leading up to the election, during a heated anti-union campaign by outside “pro-business” groups, Republican state lawmakers had held press conferences threatening to withhold incentives from the company if workers opted to join the union. It was widely reported that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam may have made similar threats, but according to Nashville’s local News Channel 5, “the governor had emphatically denied rumors heard by Democratic lawmakers that state incentives were tied to Volkswagen rejecting the UAW.”

But yesterday, the station reported that it had uncovered documents that appear to contradict the governor’s statements. Phil Williams reports, “documents leaked to NewsChannel 5 Investigates offer conclusive proof that the Haslam administration wanted a say in the automaker’s deal with organized labor — in exchange for $300 million in economic incentives to help VW expand its Chattanooga operations.”

Volkswagen opened the Hamilton County facility in May 2011 with great fanfare.

Initially producing the midsize Passat, there were hints of more to come. It was located on a 1,400-acre site with plenty of room for expansion.

Last year, when Volkswagen began talking about adding a midsize SUV to its product line, the Haslam administration began discussing financial incentives to convince the company to build it in Chattanooga.

At the same time, VW began talks with the UAW about creating a workers council to help run the plant.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained a summary from last August for what the Haslam administration called “Project Trinity.”

Marked confidential, it offers Volkswagen incentives of some $300 million — in exchange for 1,350 full-time jobs at a new SUV facility.

The catch?

“The incentives … are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee.”

The Haslam administration claims that it withdrew the offer before the vote was formally announced, but Tennessee Democrats say the document represents a smoking gun in the case. “This is exactly what we was looking for,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner said when News Channel 5 showed him the document. “Looks like to me they put a gun to their head and said, ‘Look, this is what we are going to give you if you do it our way and we are going to jerk it away if you don’t.'”

In  February, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) hinted that he had inside knowledge that Volkswagen would locate the new SUV production line in Tennessee if the plant’s workers rejected the union, a statement that Volkswagen, which remained neutral in the election, flatly denied. And as Williams notes, “that would appear to conflict with the Haslam administration’s admission that it had withdrawn the incentive offer that would have made the deal possible.”

Additional documents obtained by the station “show that Senator Corker’s chief of staff was in direct contact with anti-union organizers who were brought in to fight the UAW. He then shared those emails with people in the Haslam administration who were in charge of the incentives.”

The UAW has asked the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the results of the election due to outside interference by Tennessee politicians. Meanwhile, Volkswagen workers in Germany have threatened to block any future expansion into Southern states that are hostile to organized labor.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. 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: @JoshuaHol.
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