This post has been updated.
This week, employees at an auto plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee are voting on whether to form a union.
It’s interesting for a few reasons: Tennessee is a low-union-density state; the Volkswagen plant in question would be the first foreign auto facility to be organized in the South, marking a growth opportunity for the United Auto Workers; and VW itself has taken a neutral-to-positive stance toward the union, citing its positive relations with employee organizations at factories elsewhere in the world.
But the most interesting part of all is the panicked reaction of local Republican politicians, who are scrambling to find ways to attack the organizing effort and deter the formation of a union.
Sen. Bob Corker held a press conference Tuesday specifically to ask VW employees to reject a union, claiming potential negative impact on the state’s economy. More insidiously, state legislators suggested that they might punish VW if employees vote for the union – withholding tax incentives for future expansions, for example. In addition to likely being illegal, these threats have a special kind of irony: “we’re so worried that you’ll have a negative jobs impact that we’re willing to block future jobs to prevent it.”
On Wednesday, Corker insisted that VW would only add a new product to the factory if workers rejected the union, which not only contradicts VW’s public statements, but could violate labor law.
So there you have it. It’s not just that these Republican legislators are willing to side with a corporation against a union; it’s that when it comes to being pro-business or anti-union, they’ll choose anti-union. So much for the idea that Republicans just want to stay out of a business’ way.
What are these legislators really afraid of? They’re scared that once VW employees have a union to represent them, other workers at other Tennessee businesses might see it’s not such a bad idea. And they’re scared that organizations that represent workers and act on their behalf will get a share of the state’s political power.
It’s easier for them to tell scary stories and threaten political retribution than to adjust to a world in which employees, not just employers, have a voice in the process.
Check out this interview by the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis. She gives Corker free rein to make a superficially-convincing case against the organizing effort — then carefully annotates it to show how reality undermines the points he’s trying to make.
Republicans like Corker are spinning their usual anti-union case in defiance of VW workers, VW management and actual facts.
The disdain for employees having a say in their employment extends beyond one factory in Tennessee: indeed, it’s the underpinning of the anti-union laws broadly known as “right-to-work.” States with such laws — including Tennessee — essentially forbid contract clauses that would require employees who don’t join the union to pay a representation fee (to defray the cost of representing them).(They also don’t result in any measurable improvement in employment, wages, or quality-of-life for employees, of course.)
Please note that Republicans don’t oppose any and all conditions on employment. They wouldn’t pass a law that disallows employers from requiring employees to buy a uniform or clothes that conform to a dress code, and they wouldn’t pass a law disallowing employers from requiring employees to have educational credentials or certification. Conditions of employment are generally considered by Republicans to be at the discretion of the employer.
No, it’s only a condition of employment that the employees themselves negotiate that Republicans like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder insist on making illegal.
But it’s one thing for a state to disallow employees with a union from negotiating fair-share contracts. It’s even worse for politicians to try and throw a wrench into a union-organizing effort that employees and the employer alike are interested in pursuing.
VW employees are voting in an election held under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Act, and the plain language of the NLRA is in direct conflict to Tennessee Republicans’ angry opposition to workers’ potential choice of a union. The NLRA makes “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” the official policy of the United States, and protects workers’ right to organize, choose their own representatives, and negotiate their own conditions of employment. Collective bargaining is part of the economy, and it’s not up to Bob Corker or Tennessee state legislators to decide how VW employees decide to engage in it.
Ultimately, Tennessee Republicans aren’t afraid that their auto worker constituents will be hurt by a union. They’re afraid they might be helped.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as@sethdmichaels.