Labor Pains: How Republican Scare Tactics Prevented a Union in Tennessee


What better place then here?  What better time than now?


Late Friday night, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee had a chance to make history by becoming the first foreign carmaker to unionize in the South, something that United Automobile Workers (UAW) union President Bob King had hoped would be his legacy.  In 1979, UAW union membership was at an all-time high of 1.5 million members.  Today, it tops out at around 400,000 having lost nearly 3/4 of its membership numbers in the past thirty-five years.  If the UAW were able to unionize the Chattanooga plant, in addition to adding 1,500 members to its ranks, it would also give them a foot in the door to unionize other foreign carmakers in the region.


What makes this particular Chattanooga plant so appealing is the fact that Volkswagen did not openly resist unionization.  Volkswagen’s company board holds seats for the influential German steelworkers’ union, IG Metall, and the decision was made to not interfere with the workers’ attempt to unionize.  In addition, if the plant had then been able to successfully unionize, Volkswagen would have been allowed to set up a German-style “works council,” where representatives of both workers and middle management would be afforded the opportunity to actively engage executives as to how to best run the plant.  With no internal opposition, it seemed like this was an opportune time to finally get that union that King and the UAW had so badly wanted and open the door to potentially give hundreds of thousands of southern autoworkers the possibility of eventually unionizing.


With so much on the line, you could guess that Republicans would not go down without a fight.  In the weeks leading up to the vote, Republicans resorted to their bread and butter political strategy of the 21st century:  Manipulating people and convincing them to vote against their own best interests.  This particular strategy would be conveniently divided up into three acts.


Act 1:  Enter Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist and the Center for Worker Freedom.  Norquist and his organization actively campaigned against unionization in the region by placing a series of 13 billboards in the vicinity of plant as seen here:



The billboards as you can see, in addition to linking Obama to the UAW, cite a Reuters article that states “…almost every job lost at U.S. car factories in the last 30 years has occurred at a unionized company.”  However, when the original article is viewed from Reuters in December of 2011, it is revealed that the full quote is “Workers know that almost every job lost at U.S. car factories in the last 30 years has occurred at a unionized company, while almost every job gained has come at a non-union company.”  The question then becomes how do workers inherently know this?  What source or study are they citing?  And, why does Reuters assume its readers know or are aware of this fact as they themselves chose to not footnote or cite the information?


Act 2:  Have your elected representatives threaten to stop your tax breaks. In the week leading up to the vote, Tennessee state senator Bo Watson was quoted as saying:


“It has been widely reported that Volkswagen has promoted a campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns.  Should the workers choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”


In addition David Smith, a spokesman for Republican Governor Bill Haslam, stated, ”Any discussions of incentives are part of additional and continued talks with VW, which we look forward to.”  The quotes showcased a clear bias on the part of the politicians and made it seem like the autoworkers would actually lose money if they were to join the union.  President Barack Obama, paying careful attention to the issue, made comments at a closed door meeting where he reportedly accused Republican politicians of being more concerned about German shareholders than U.S. workers.


Act 3:  Reap the benefits of your lies and deceit.  Late Friday night, it was announced that Volkswagen workers rejected union representation in Chattanooga by a vote of 712-626.  With 89% of hourly employees turning out to vote, it is clear that this was an issue that workers were passionate about.  Unfortunately, many of these workers clearly were influenced by the propaganda from Republican leaders and policymakers who pretended to be out for their interests, but actually used the workers as pawns in a game to shut down any possibility for unionization at the plant.


By heeding to misleading information from Grover Norquist and economic threats from their own elected representatives, plant workers were given the false impression that their unionizing would ultimately do them more harm than good.  This is the exact message that Republicans hoped they would hear and one they hammered home to keep 1,500 workers from making history and unionizing the first foreign carmaker in the South.  Thanks to a deliberate campaign of misinformation and underhanded techniques, Republicans have once again undermined American democracy and have forced their agenda on an unsuspecting population of decent, hard-working Americans.    


It seems that this technique is the only one they know how to do anymore.

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