The role played by leading Republican politicians in undermining workers’ choice in the union election at Chattanooga is, by now, well-known. Senior state lawmakers threatened to withdraw financial incentives if the workers voted for the United Auto Workers union (UAW), which would have undermined future employment at the plant. Then, in a dramatic last-minute escalation of intimidation, Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, announced on the first day of the three-day election that he had received assurances that the production of a new SUV would be located in Chattanooga instead of Mexico if the workers voted against the union. Volkswagen management immediately disowned Corker’s deliberately misleading comments, but almost inexplicably he continued to insist they were “factual and true.”
Also well-documented is the role of anti-union carpetbaggers with links to Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers. Norquist’s ludicrously mistitled “Center for Worker Freedom” (CWF) spent an entire year in Chattanooga attempting to scare the workers, their family members and the community about the likely impact of unionization at Chattanooga. In a post-election victory celebration at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, Matt Patterson, who spearheaded the CWF’s anti-union campaign explained his approach: “If we can put pressure on the workers through their coworkers, family, friends, that would create a lot of friction. … ”
Less known is the role of Projections Inc., the union-avoidance firm hired by Southern Momentum Inc. (SMI), the one anti-union organization that purported to represent ordinary rank-and-file Volkswagen workers. During the campaign, SMI run a slick anti-union web site – no2uaw.com – which several observers credited with scaring workers against the union. The web site states that it was created by “concerned VW team members.” But in reality, SMI was anything but a grass-roots organization of ordinary workers. It was a Tennessee corporate organization, fronted by an anti-union lawyer, Maury Nicely, who 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.
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With these funds, SMI hired a leading out-of-state consultant firm, Projections, to produce and distribute videos attacking the UAW and unionization in general. According to Projections, one of its campaign videos “provided the truth about the UAW, laying out a litany of UAW offenses, including support for liberal political groups that fight gun control.” (The firm is apparently unaware that UAW contracts in Michigan often include time off for hunting.)
Immediately after the election, Projections started using a case study based on its activities during the Volkswagen election to promote its “Union Proof” program with employers. Thus, the hijacking of the union election at Volkswagen already is being held up as a model for undermining workers’ choice at other firms.
The “union-avoidance industry” – composed of consultant firms such Projections, anti-union law firms (such as Jackson Lewis and Littler Mendelson), industrial psychologists and strike-breaking firms – has existed since the 1950s, but it exploded in size in the 1970s and 1980s. For the past four decades, so-called “union-avoidance consultants” have been at the epicenter of the sustained, and largely successful, assault of unions and collective bargaining. Consultant firms such as Projections have played a central role in the development and popularization of many tactics that have become standard features of anti-union campaigns, including customized videos and web sites, “vote no” committees and campaign literature stressing the alleged futility of, and risks associated with, unionization. In the 1990s, union avoidance developed into a multimillion-dollar industry, and consultant campaigns became a standard feature of organizing campaigns, with more than two-thirds of employers recruiting consultants when faced with a union drive.
Based in Norcross, Georgia, Projections, one of the nation’s leading union-avoidance firms, specializes in “hard-hitting” anti-union videos and web sites. Projections has been “battling unions since 1979” and reportedly has 20 to 50 employees, with revenues between $1 million to $5 million per year. In an earlier high-profile auto campaign, Projections provided anti-union materials and strategy that enabled the Japanese automaker Nissan to defeat an effort by workers in Tennessee to join the UAW in 2001. In common with many consultant-led campaigns, the Nissan campaign was extraordinarily bitter and involved numerous allegations of unfair management practices. Employer associations argue that consultants reduce the number of illegal actions by educating management on what they can and cannot do, but this argument is undercut by the fact that many of the most confrontational campaigns, with the most unlawful employer practices, during the past few decades have been orchestrated by external union-avoidance consultants.
So what was the role of this shadowy union-avoidance firm at Volkswagen? As soon as the NLRB set the election dates, according to the company, the Projections team jumped into action: “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 were shown at Southern Momentum’s public meetings in the days before the election and placed on the organization’s web site. At the request of consultants and advisers at SMI, the anti-union videos were also placed on flash drives so workers could take them home and view them the same day with family members.
The events at Chattanooga demonstrate how consultant firms specialize in getting anti-union messages across to employees in extremely short time frames, thus effectively undermining arguments that the NLRB’s new rules on certification elections – which were issued in February – will deny employers sufficient time to communicate with their employees. Indeed, Projections CEO Walter Orechwa said that the nine-day election campaign at Volkswagen had provided them with ample time to get their message across: “The truth is, regardless of the timeframe, powerful employee communication is always key to remaining union-free.”
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 web sites that “launch all-out attacks on unions … to destroy the union’s attractiveness in the eyes of employees.” In another example of its use of militaristic rhetoric to describe union campaigns, Projections has told employers that unions’ “foot soldiers are waging an all-out war against corporate America, and the spoils of victory are your employees.”
Projections’ deep involvement in the anti-union campaign at Chattanooga further undermines the notion that this was an organic anti-union drive orchestrated and implemented by ordinary Volkswagen employees. Big-money out-of-state groups like the Center for Worker Freedom coordinated the anti-union onslaught. Leading union-avoidance experts such as Projections, which ruthlessly attacked the union and repeated Republican propaganda, provided the on-the-ground expertise. All the pieces were in place. This was no grass-roots anti-union campaign. It was a well-funded, professional and sophisticated effort to undermine the free choice of Volkswagen workers. If the NLRB fails to overturn the tainted election and restore workplace democracy, events at Chattanooga will establish a grim precedent, which undoubtedly will be repeated in future union drives.