Last week’s disclosure by respected Tennessee journalist Phil Williams concerning Republican dirty tricks in the Chattanooga union election demonstrates beyond any doubt that the GOP committed grand theft at Volkswagen. The confidential documents obtained by Williams show that Governor Bill Haslam offered Volkswagen $300 million contingent on the outcome of the election, and that Sen. Bob Corker’s chief of staff coordinated anti-UAW messaging with Tennessee Republicans and anti-union groups. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) must restore democracy and overturn the flawed election.
The evidence of external interference with workers’ choice is as follows:
1. Shortly before the election, senior Tennessee lawmakers threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in state incentives if workers voted for the United Auto Workers union (UAW).
2. Confidential documents show that Gov. Haslam offered Volkswagen nearly $300 million in subsidies, but only if the union election were concluded “to the satisfaction” of his administration.
3. Neither Haslam nor his staffers have been able to explain the revelations. Haslam previously denied a connection between the subsidies and the election result, but when questioned by Williams, he responded, “We’ve been really clear all along that we had an interest in the outcome of that vote.” He apparently does not understand that the purpose of federal labor law is to protect the choice of workers, not GOP politicians. After continued inquiries, a spokesperson for the governor explained that, “the state of Tennessee has incentivized unionized companies before.” So Haslam’s best excuse for interfering with the election is that this is not his first offense?
4. Republicans’ statements on the election were in direct conflict with their actions behind the scenes. While Republicans tried to blackmail the company and colluded with anti-union extremists, Haslam warned Volkswagen management that it was essential that workers be allowed to vote “without undue influence,” and stated that a fair vote was essential to the “acceptance of any result by the employees and the community.” But thanks to the GOP’s litany of dirty tricks – which gets longer with each new revelation – the Chattanooga vote was anything but fair.
5. Sen. Corker (R-Tenn.) twice told workers he had been given assurances that Volkswagen would expand production at Chattanooga if they voted against the union. The company immediately disowned his comments. Never before has a US senator misused his position to interfere in a union election at a private company in this way.
6. Out-of-state organizations with links to Grover Norquist and others ran an unprecedented campaign of interference. After the election, Grover’s chief strategist, who spent a year in Chattanooga, boasted of having created “strife” in the community.
7. Tennessee’s GOP establishment intervened in a disgraceful manner. Last week, the Republican Party chair (who had compared unionization to an “infestation” of “Ichneumon wasp larvae”) tweeted in response to the NAACP’s support for the union: “Those allies tell the tale.”
8. One AstroTurf Tennessee organization, Southern Momentum Inc., claimed to represent ordinary Volkswagen workers, but raised significant funds from anti-union businesses and hired the leading “union avoidance” firm Projections, Inc. to produce anti-UAW videos.
9. The confidential documents demonstrate, astoundingly, that Corker’s chief-of-staff was working with union avoidance professionals and members of Haslam’s cabinet around anti-UAW messaging.
Media coverage of the confidential documents has focused on Haslam’s chicanery, but equally significant is the evidence of collusion between Republicans and anti-union professionals. The day before voting started, Corker’s chief of staff discussed messaging around the three Projections’ videos with various anti-union organizations, thus showing a high degree of coordination, which Republicans had previously denied.
The recipients of Womack’s email represent a who’s who of Tennessee lawmakers, business leaders, and union avoidance organizations. They include Bill Hagerty, commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development and a member of Haslam’s cabinet; Maurice Nicely, an anti-union lawyer who fronted Southern Momentum Inc.; Jim Gray, head of a South Carolina firm that has a “primary focus on union avoidance,” who told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m just here to help out”; Don Jackson, a former Volkswagen plant manager turned anti-UAW spokesperson; Ron Harr, CEO of the Chattanooga Region Chamber of Commerce; Tim Spires, CEO of the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers; and Peter List, a notorious anti-union consultant and blogger, and founder and CEO of the union avoidance firm Kulture. According to Fortune magazine, List is “a firm believer in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of radical individualism” who “opposes all state efforts to regulate labor relations.” List himself states that unions are “one of the biggest threats facing America today.”
In addition to revealing the astonishing number of groups that were working to defeat the organizing campaign – we knew about the involvement of anti-union groups with links to Grover Norquist and the Koch Brothers, but did not know about List and others – the email demonstrates that senior Republican staffers were in direct contact with these groups over anti-union messaging.
The confidential documents obtained by Phil Williams demonstrate beyond any doubt that the intensive anti-union campaign was anything but a grassroots effort by ordinary Volkswagen employees. They indicate significant coordination between Republican lawmakers and anti-union extremists in the day-to-day messaging of the campaign. And the tone of the emails indicates a significant degree of familiarity; these were not one-off communications.
The evidence of unlawful interference at Chattanooga is now overwhelming. Republicans intimidated workers and misled them about the implications of their vote. Governor Haslam and Senator Corker deceived them about the nature and extent of their involvement in the campaign. The NLRB must now ensure they do not get away with this outrageous interference.