A new front in the battle over unionization at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant opened in full-throated partisan fashion at the Tennessee Capitol on Monday.
Democrats took shots at Republicans for taking shots at United Auto Workers, and for suggesting that future state government-funded financial inducements for plant expansion might evaporate under the GOP supermajority if the union comes to town.
Republicans made no apologies. They argue that UAW gaining a foothold in the region would have deleterious consequences for future business recruitment to Chattanooga and beyond — and workers ought to take that into consideration before deciding whether or not they want UAW representing them.
About 1,600 wage-earning employees at the Chattanooga VW plant are preparing to vote this week if they want the Detroit-based union to represent them so they can establish a “works council” like those in place in other Volkswagen factories outside the United States.
UAW argues that under U.S. labor law, a works council would be illegal unless employees at the plant are represented by a union.
Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, have been vocal in their opposition to UAW coming to Tennessee. During a speech last week, Haslam said the VW workers’ unionization vote will have consequences well beyond the factory floor. He said the state of Tennessee, because it has invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the Chattanooga plant already, has a vested interest in the outcome of the election.
The governor also said he doesn’t believe VW workers have been exposed to a full range of debate on the pros and cons of unionization in the prelude to the election, which starts Wednesday and closes Friday. “One of my concerns is that within the plant both sides of the discussion aren’t being represented,” the governor said. “The UAW is having a chance to present the argument but nobody else is.”
In that vein, Republican Sens. Bo Watson and Todd Gardenhire joined state Reps. Gerald McCormick, Richard Floyd and Mike Carter at press conference in Chattanooga Monday morning to appeal to VW workers to reject UAW.
Watson, the upper chamber’s speaker pro tem, said, “Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”
At a Legislative Plaza press conference later in the day, House Democrats accused Republicans of meddling in VW’s internal affairs.
Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, said they were particularly incensed by suggestions that the Legislature might take steps to withhold taxpayer-funded incentives from Volkswagen if the plant is unionized.
Fitzhugh charged GOP lawmakers with “government intrusion” into VW’s affairs. If the company’s decision-makers don’t have a problem with employees inviting UAW in the plant, then Tennessee state government shouldn’t either, he said.
“I don’t think it looks good for employers and employees to agree to something and then have the government come in and interfere,” he said. “This is a very bad precedent to set.”
Continuing the thread, Turner, often a vocal supporter of unions, accused Republicans of “putting socialist ideas forward about how to run your business.” He also called Republicans “anti-employee and anti-worker.”
“They’re afraid those people might get in there and start voting Democrat, that’s all they care about,” said Turner.
A longtime Tennessee labor lawyer, George Barrett, joined the Democratic legislators in the press conference. He warned that state lawmakers may be violating federal law by even hinting that they’d consider nixing corporate giveaways on the basis of whether or not a company is unionized.
Republicans, said Barrett, “are threatening to withhold a benefit that you are offering to other people on the basis of membership in unions, which is discriminatory. And it is under the color of state law, which makes it contrary to the federal Civil Rights Act.”
“You cannot, under the National Labor Relations Act, engage in this type of conduct,” he said. “It is illegal. They are threatening to do it, and the threat is as bad as the fact. It is equally improper, and they are doing it.”
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, accused Republicans in general of an overarching and systematic program of intruding into the sphere of private affairs since they’ve taken power in the Tennessee General Assembly. Their public rhetoric on VW unionization is consistent with that pattern, he said.
“It is following the same theme of controlling a woman’s body and getting into the bedroom. Now we are getting into the corporate boardroom,” said Hardaway. “Same theme. Overreach, excess of government. Big government is getting bigger — it is getting more intrusive. And now it is going after the corporate boardroom, the intimate relationship between employers and employees. It’s pretty simple, nothing has changed. They have just gotten more enthused about it, more intense and more aggressive.”
In an interview with TNReport Monday night, McCormick, the House majority leader, said Democrats are the ones butting in where they don’t belong.
“It’s in my district, so I think I should speak out on the issue,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “I would question why Democrats from Nashville are going to Chattanooga, and Democrats from Memphis are making comments on it. I would ask them to destroy jobs in their own area rather than coming to mine to do it.”
“It really shouldn’t be a partisan issue — I’m afraid it is — but it’s really about jobs,” McCormick continued. “The UAW has proven they can destroy jobs. They’ve destroyed Detroit, and we don’t want them to do that to Chattanooga.”
Like Haslam, McCormick accused Volkswagen of squelching anti-union campaigning at the plant. “VW has not allowed opposing viewpoints to come in and talk to the workers,” he said.
“It appears that VW is really on the side of UAW coming in,” McCormick said.
As to the possible refusal of state financial aid to the company going forward, McCormick denied that Republicans are “holding it out as a threat of any kind.”
“But the political reality is that if you are bringing in the radical, left-wing, politically active union, and then you expect conservative Republicans to vote to give incentives — which they are already uncomfortable doing — then it just makes it harder to make that case,” he said.
Also speaking Monday night, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, rejected any assertion that lawmakers ought to keep mum on the matter of VW unionization. He furthermore said it is fully appropriate for state government officials and elected leaders to weigh whatever economic factors they deem important when deciding whether to award government incentives to a private company.
“Would a future offer be tempered based on what we thought the future of the plant is? Of course,” said Ramsey, the speaker of the Tennessee Senate. “That’s what the taxpayers elect us to do, use our best judgement on questions like that.”