Snow blanketed the Tennessee hills surrounding Chattanooga last week as workers at the sprawling Volkswagen plant began voting on whether the United Automobile Workers union (UAW) should represent them.
The stakes were high. A union victory would pave the way for a German-style Works Council elected by all employees for the first time in the United States and would provide the UAW with its first win at a non-union automaker in the South.
When the votes were counted last Friday night, the result was a shock to UAW supporters: the union narrowly lost, 712 to 626. A painful, damaging loss to be sure, but far from the collapse of the UAW and the end of labor more generally that many analysts described.
What happened? A highly innovative organizing drive was blindsided by an unprecedented barrage of attacks by Republican politicians in Tennessee. What stands out is not a scurrilous or misleading campaign — hardly a novelty in any election — but rather a devastating new tactic: economic intimidation from high-profile political leaders.
This strategy uses the power of public office to make an end-run around the fundamental worker rights protected by law. If an employer threatens economic reprisals during an election, this act is clearly illegal and could result in a new election. When political leaders did the same, they claimed it was simply free speech.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) called a special press conference and flew to Chattanooga the day before voting began. He announced anonymous high-level executives had told him if the union loses, VW would bring a critical new mid-sized SUV to the plant within weeks.
Corker was hardly alone in these threats. Earlier, Republican state senators cautioned a union victory would put future incentives for VW on ice and the governor warned auto suppliers would avoid Tennessee, despite VW’s plans to invest an additional $7 billion in the US.
VW immediately issued a statement after Senator Corker’s remarks saying the election would have no bearing on the site decision, but the erroneous earlier remarks resonated with many in the community. Local conservative talk radio provided a near-continuous echo chamber for these threats. VW workers and family members were made to feel voting for the UAW could put the future of the plant and their jobs at risk.
The UAW organizing drive began on a far different note. President Bob King and other UAW leaders built a strong relationship with IG Metall, the powerful 2.2 million-member German metalworkers union. VW itself was open to a Works Council in Chattanooga, viewing worker input as a competitive advantage, and understood US labor law requires an independent union to make this happen.
The UAW embraced the idea. The union viewed it as a logical extension of the labor-management cooperation it has developed with Detroit automakers through 11 joint committees working on issues from apprenticeships to health and safety.
The economic results of these efforts have been impressive. Ford recorded record profits in North America in 2013 — $8.7 billion — and 47,000 UAW workers received $8,800 profit sharing checks.
Spurred by the IG Metall, VW agreed to remain neutral during the campaign and even allowed union organizers limited access to workers in the factory. Last September the UAW announced that more than 50% of the plant’s workers had endorsed the union.
The last message from the UAW organizing committee before the vote captured the spirit of the drive and the hopes for the future. “Your yes vote will be a vote to create our own works council,” the leaflet stated, “then we can help Volkswagen continue to succeed, and secure our jobs long into the future.”
The UAW appeared poised to win when the Republican barrage shifted into high gear. It proved decisive. Despite everything, the union managed to retain 47% of the vote, the most it has ever received at an automaker in the South. All that was needed to turn victory into defeat is for economic threats to persuade 45 workers planning to vote “yes” to vote “no.”.
Why did Republican politicians intervene so aggressively? Their response went beyond a deep dislike of unions — that certainly was there — and centered on defeating the UAW to diminish the political clout of labor more broadly.
The right to form a union absent intimidation is one of the most fundamental democratic rights. It’s hardly coincidental that among the first things dictators do is ban unions. In the U.S. no one is mandated to join a labor organization, but everyone should have the right to make the choice without fearing their job is at stake.
When rights are thwarted in a union organizing election, democracy for everyone is diminished.