In one of the most closely watched National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections in decades, on February 12-14, 2014, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted 712-626 against representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW). The outcome came as a shock to many. In the months leading up to the election, a clear majority of the workers supported unionization. But in the days before the vote, leading Republican politicians and anti-union organizations with links to Grover Norquist and other right-wing activists conducted their own St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chattanooga and intimidated workers into voting against the union.
State Republican leaders threatened to withhold financial incentives from Volkswagen, which would have imperiled future employment at the plant. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who The Wall Street Journal said waged an “unusually forceful fight,” told workers he had received “assurances” that the company would locate a new product in Tennessee if they rejected the UAW. Corker’s deliberately misleading comments on the first day of the election, which he stood by even after the company categorically refuted them, played a decisive role in the outcome. Many workers were concerned primarily about the impact of the vote on their job security.
What about the outside organizations that played a leading role in publicizing the GOP’s threats and misinformation? The Center for Worker Freedom (CWF), a special project of right-wing activist Norquist, stated that defeating the union campaign in Chattanooga was its “top priority.” The CWF said it was fighting an “invading union force from the North,” but the true carpetbaggers were the anti-union groups. The UAW effort, in contrast, was largely a member-to-member organizing campaign. Norquist’s extremism is well-documented. In March 2014 at the annual CPAC meeting in DC, he lamented that unions were “not dead yet.” In the past, he has called for legislation that would enable conservatives to “break the unions” and “crush unions as a political entity.” CWF reportedly spent a year in Chattanooga organizing against the union with billboards, radio ads and town hall meetings. In common with CWF, other anti-union organizations active in Chattanooga – such as the Koch brothers-connected Competitive Enterprise Institute, the National Right to Work Foundation and Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative – have shadowy right-wing funders. They have refused to say how much was spent on the unprecedented interference, but it’s clear that wealthy activists spent millions on this anti-union drive in the name of “worker freedom.”
Not all the anti-union groups came from out of state. A new Tennessee organization that was publicly fronted by anti-union Chattanooga attorney Maurice Nicely, Southern Momentum, purported to represent ordinary VW workers. But Nicely himself told Reuters that the group raised funds in the “low six figures” for its anti-union campaign from “businesses and individuals,” rather than from rank-and-file workers. Southern Momentum highlighted the threatening statements of Tennessee lawmakers that “financial incentives … simply will not exist if the UAW wins this election.”
Surprisingly for a grassroots organization, Southern Momentum engaged the services of Projections Inc., one of the nation’s leading union avoidance firms, which specializes in “hard-hitting” anti-union videos and websites. Projections, Inc., based in Norcross, Georgia, states that it has been “battling unions since 1979,” and reportedly has between 20 and 50 employees, with revenues between $1 million to $5 million per year. It helped Nissan defeat an effort by workers in Tennessee to join the UAW in 2001.
As soon as the election dates were set, Projections got to work: “The Union Proof team immediately went to Chattanooga to begin drafting a communications strategy. Scripts were written, testimonials shot and in-plant footage was recorded.” Anti-union videos, “laying out a litany of UAW offenses,” were shown at Southern Momentum’s public meetings days before the election and also placed on the organization’s web site.
A “Declaration of War”
To understand the ferocity of the anti-union campaign at Chattanooga, one need only examine how Projections promotes its services with employers. Projections has warned employers that a union organizing drive is a “Declaration of War” against their company and asks: “Are you using the most powerful weapon in your arsenal?” The weapon in question is one of Projections’ custom-made videos or websites that “launch all-out attacks on unions … to destroy the union’s attractiveness in the eyes of employees.” Projections’ deep involvement in the anti-union campaign further undermines the notion that this was an organic anti-union drive organized and run by ordinary Volkswagen employees.
The Anti-Union Roadshow Moves On
If the NLRB fails to overturn the tainted Volkswagen election, the anti-union roadshow that misled Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga will be repeated elsewhere. Right-wing groups were concerned that a union victory at Volkswagen would boost the UAW’s other organizing campaigns. Norquist explained: “If they had won here, they could have portrayed themselves as on a roll.” Now the right-wing activists are on a roll. CWF and other anti-union carpetbaggers are moving to Mississippi and Alabama to fight the UAW at Nissan and Mercedes-Benz. In Alabama, where Norquist’s group says it has been meeting with “community and business leaders,” prominent Republican politicians, including Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, have vowed to join efforts to stop workers from unionizing. In Mississippi, the House has passed a bill that would make it illegal to “coerce” a company into a neutrality agreement or card check recognition during an organizing campaign. Although it does not define what constitutes coercion, the bill is likely a pre-emptive strike against the union campaign at Nissan in Canton, which is one of the few significant private-sector organizing campaigns taking place in Mississippi.
If the NLRB fails to overturn the tainted election at Volkswagen, third-party dirty tricks by Republican politicians, anti-labor groups and union-avoidance firms may become a standard feature of organizing campaigns. That would enable Norquist and other right-wing activists to buy union elections, just as they already are buying political elections.