Given the dizzying array of antiunion forces that were involved in the campaign to undermine workers’ choice to form a union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, a who’s who of who did what in the dirty tricks campaign may come in handy.
On April 9, the United Auto Workers (UAW) subpoenaed Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Governor Bill Haslam and 18 other state officials to appear at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB hearing into third-party intervention in the union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Given the dizzying array of antiunion forces that were involved in the campaign to undermine workers’ choice, it’s easy to lose track of who did what.
The anti-UAW campaign at Volkswagen had everything: a senator deliberately misleading workers; a governor offering Volkswagen hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars – but only if the union lost – senior state politicians openly making threats of financial retribution; Republican staffers secretly coordinating the anti-UAW campaign with notorious union busters; shadowy organizations with links to the nation’s leading right-wing activists; an Ayn Rand-inspired anti-union consultant; and AstroTurf organizations that purported to be groups of rank-and-file workers. And this is only what we know so far.
Here’s a quick primer to the main actors in the campaign to subvert workers’ choice:
Competitive Enterprise Institute: A shadowy libertarian organization with links to the Koch Brothers and right-wing foundations. CEI’s involvement was primarily through right-wing activist Matt Patterson, who later went on to spearhead the antiunion campaign with the Center for Worker Freedom.
Center for Worker Freedom: A special project of Grover Norquist’s American for Tax Reform. CWF Director Matt Patterson spent a year in Chattanooga spreading misinformation. After the election, he boasted that his strategy of involving workers’ families and the community had caused “strife.”
Bob Corker: Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) twice told workers he had been given assurances that Volkswagen would expand production at Chattanooga if they voted against the union. It wasn’t true. Never before has a senator misused his position to interfere in a union election at a private company in this way.
Jim Gray: Antiunion consultant Gray heads a South Carolina firm that has a “primary focus on union avoidance.” After attending an anti-UAW planning meeting, Gray stated, “I’m just here to help out.” It appears that Gray helped arrange the production of the antiunion campaign videos.
Bill Haslam: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam offered Volkswagen $300 million in subsidies, but only if the UAW lost. Written at top of the confidential document was the following caveat: “The incentives described below are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee.”
Peter List: A notorious antiunion consultant, List is the founder and CEO of Kulture Labor Relations. According to a profile in Fortune magazine, List is “a firm believer in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of radical individualism” who “opposes all state efforts to regulate labor relations.” In a 2007 organizing campaign, NLRB member Dennis Walsh wrote that in his effort to “persuade” workers, List had engaged in “patently unlawful” activities.
National Right to Work Committee Legal Defense Fund: The organization claimed that it only provided free legal support for antiunion workers, but the UAW has alleged that a NRTW lawyer was also involved in coordinating the antiunion campaign.
Maury Nicely: A Chattanooga antiunion lawyer who fronted Southern Momentum, Inc., Nicely told Reuters that his group had raised over $100,000 from antiunion businesses and individuals. Despite purporting to represent ordinary Volkswagen workers, none of SMI’s funding came from workers, and few Volkswagen workers had any direct involvement with it.
Projections, Inc.: One of the country’s leading “union avoidance” firms, Projections created three antiunion videos for SMI, which were shown at public meetings, put on SMI’s “no2uaw.com” website and given to workers on flash drives so they could watch them with their families. The videos implied that workers job security would be threatened if they voted for the union.
Robin Smith: Chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, Smith compared the UAW to an “infestation” of “Ichneumon wasp larvae.” When the NAACP expressed support for an investigation into Haslam’s secret offer, Smith tweeted: “@NAACP supports @UAW at @VW in Chattanooga. Those allies tell the tale.” As indicated by her comments, the Tennessee GOP establishment intervened in the election in a disgraceful manner.
Southern Momentum, Inc.: SMI was the one antiunion group that claimed to represent ordinary Volkswagen workers. In reality, it was another AstroTurf organization, headed by antiunion lawyer Maury Nicely, funded by antiunion businesses, and which hired expensive external union avoidance professionals.
Bo Watson: State Senator Watson and other senior state politicians threatened to block financial incentives for the company – which the workers understood would threaten their job security – if workers voted for the UAW. The day before workers started voting, Watson stated at a press conference that, “members of the Tennessee Senate will not view unionization as in the best interest of Tennessee,” and that lawmakers would “have a difficult time convincing our citizens to support any Volkswagen incentive package.”
Todd Womack: Corker’s chief of staff was in direct contact with Tennessee politicians – including members of the Governor’s cabinet – and union avoidance groups about anti-UAW messaging. Womack sent an email concerning the three Projections anti-UAW videos. Recipients of his message included Grey, List, and the heads of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and Tennessee Manufacturers Association.
The Volkswagen election showed the extraordinary lengths to which Republican lawmakers and antiunion organizations are prepared to go to subvert workers’ right to choose a union. Whatever the eventual outcome at Chattanooga, they must never get away with these dirty tricks again.