The NLRB Must Restore Democracy in Chattanooga

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will soon decide whether to overturn the union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because outside interference undermined workers’ choice. An administrative law judge for the board is scheduled to hear evidence on the high-profile case on April 21st. The facts of the controversial campaign demonstrate that third-party interference by GOP politicians and anti-union groups created “a general atmosphere of fear or reprisal rendering a free election impossible.”

The NLRB must overturn the tainted union election for five main reasons.

First, leading state lawmakers – including state House Republican leaders Beth Harwell, Gerald McCormick and Bo Watson, and state Senate Republican leaders Jack Johnson and Mark Green – publicly menaced the job security of Volkswagen workers if the United Auto Workers (UAW) won. They threatened to withhold financial incentives from Volkswagen, which would have imperiled future employment at the plant. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam also warned that a union victory would undermine job security for Volkswagen workers. Broadcast, print and social media disseminated their statements. Workers had every reason to believe that politicians would act on these threats if the union won.

Second, Tennessee’s most senior politician, Senator Bob Corker, misled and pressured workers into voting against the union. Corker announced he had received “assurances” that the company would locate a new mid-sized SUV product in Tennessee if they rejected the UAW. On the first day of the three-day election, his office issued an official press release that stated: “Corker: Conversations Today Indicate a Vote Against UAW is a Vote for SUV Production.”

Corker’s deliberately misleading comments, which he doubled down on even after the company categorically refuted them, played a decisive role in the outcome. Volkswagen workers were concerned primarily about the impact of the vote on their job security, and Corker told them this would be diminished if the union won. Corker’s statements, which dramatically escalated the GOP’s campaign threats, clearly violated the law and should by themselves be sufficient grounds for the NLRB to toss out the tainted election. A US senator using the full authority of his office to intimidate workers in a union election at a private company is absolutely unprecedented.

Third, out-of-state billionaire-funded “Astro Turf” organizations repeated and publicized the threats and intimidation of GOP politicians, thus ensuring that every Volkswagen worker had them foremost in their minds when they voted. Southern Momentum, Inc. (SMI), a Tennessee-based corporation funded by anti-union businesses, also played a critical role in highlighting in the media the threatening statements of various Tennessee lawmakers that “financial incentives … simply will not exist if the UAW wins this election.” Despite claiming to represent ordinary Volkswagen workers, SMI worked in cahoots with Projections, Inc., one of the nation’s leading union avoidance firms, which tells employers that unions are “waging an all-out war against corporate America.” A banner headline on SMI’s Facebook page announced: “Chattanooga Will Get New Line of SUVs if UAW Is Not Approved.”

Fourth, anti-union groups coordinated their interference in a way that rendered a free election impossible. It is implausible that these anti-union carpetbaggers descended on Chattanooga and subjected workers to identical high-pressure campaigns without a significant degree of coordination. These groups regularly cooperate on anti-union legislative initiatives at the state level. The cumulative effect of GOP threats and intimidation, together with the wide-reaching and coordinated campaign by anti-union groups to publicize them, led workers to believe that a vote for the UAW would severely damage their job security.

Finally, if the NLRB fails to overturn the tainted election, third-party interference will become the norm in union campaigns in the South. The anti-union road show that misled Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga will be repeated elsewhere. Grover Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom, which spent a year in Chattanooga fighting the organizing campaign, has already moved on to Mississippi and Alabama to fight the UAW at Nissan and Mercedes-Benz. In Alabama, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and other GOP politicians have vowed to join efforts to stop workers from choosing the UAW.

Given the widespread prevalence of low-wage employment in Chattanooga – New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote that over one quarter of the city’s residents live below the federal poverty line – it is no surprise that most Volkswagen workers were concerned above all with the outcome of the vote on their job security. Some 80,000 workers applied for only 2,000 jobs when Volkswagen opened its facility in the city in 2011. Thus, when virtually the entire political establishment of Tennessee told them that a vote for unionization would threaten their security, the lucky 2,000 that had won the jobs lottery paid close attention and many voted accordingly. The economic desperation that pervades Chattanooga and the surrounding areas made the threats and intimidation by Republican politicians all the more potent.

After the election, Corker tried to downplay the significance of his coercive comments. He disingenuously asked: “How many people even read the paper today?” But everyone heard his coercive comments. He has attempted to intimidate the board into inaction. But if it fails to act, dirty tricks by GOP politicians and right-wing Astro Turf organizations will become a standard feature of union elections. The NLRB must restore workplace democracy in Chattanooga.