After Volkswagen issued a letter in September saying the company would not oppose an attempt by the United Auto Workers (UAW) to unionize its 1,600-worker Chattanooga, Tenn., facility, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was flabbergasted.
“For management to invite the UAW in is almost beyond belief,” Corker, who campaigned heavily for the plant’s construction during his tenure as mayor of Chattanooga, told the Associated Press. “They will become the object of many business school studies — and I’m a little worried could become a laughingstock in many ways — if they inflict this wound.”
Corker isn’t the only right-winger out to halt UAW’s campaign. In the absence of any overt anti-union offensive by Volkswagen, conservative political operatives worried about the UAW getting a foothold in the South have stepped into the fray.
Leaked documents obtained by In These Times, as well as interviews with a veteran anti-union consultant, indicate that a conservative group, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, appears to be pumping hundred of thousands of dollars into media and grassroots organizing in an effort to stop the union drive. In addition, the National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation helped four anti-union workers in October file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that Volkswagen was forcing a union on them.
“Everyone is definitely looking at this fight,” the anti-union consultant, Martin (not his real name), told In These Times. “This is the union fight going on right now and everybody [in the anti-union world] is looking to play their part and get compensated for playing their part.”
The last VW plant where workers don’t have a voice
As the only major VW plant in the United States, Chattanooga is also the only plant whose workers have no opportunity to join German-style “works councils” — committees of hourly and salaried employees who discuss management decisions, like which plant will make specific car models, on a local and global scale.
Organizing with the UAW, workers say, would help them to both form new works councils and gain representation at existing ones — which, in turn, would attract more jobs to the area.
“I personally feel like not having a union and not participating in a works council is going to do more damage for future expansion and new product development in Chattanooga than any unionization would do,” says Volkswagen employee Justin King. “The way VW works on the international level, [management] almost expects to work with a union. Now, we aren’t able to say, ‘Hey we would like to build that new SUV, or we would like to hire some new workers.’ We are only hurting ourselves by not going union.”
Workers also say having a union would help the plant be more efficient. “On the assembly line, the process changes each year because [of] new models,” says worker Chris Brown. “A voice in the company would help smooth the process from year to year.”
Beyond this, VW employees feel that organizing could help address their problems with corporate policy, including the fact that nearly one-fifth of workers at peak times in auto production have been temporary employees. Temporary employees’ starting wages are more than two dollars an hour lower than full-time employees’, and their healthcare and retirement benefits are much less robust, says the UAW.
According to Brown, approximately 200-300 “temps” are currently employed in the VW factory — and the UAW says they can remain classified as temporary even if they work at VW for years.
“I am friends with these people, and they want a job. Some of these people have been there for 18 months as a temp and that’s just … wrong,” says Brown. “If this is a job that I do, they should be making the pay that I make. [They] should have the same job security that I have as an employee.”
Fellow employee Lauren Feinauer agrees that a union would improve workers’ communication with management. “We heard a lot in the beginning about how VW works with their employees: close relationships and a lot of communication. I know there is a lot of that going on, but I think some of the VW way got lost in translation,” she says. “This is why we want a union.”
This September, the UAW announced that a majority of VW workers have signed up to join the union. But according to the UAW, it and VW still have yet to agree on a process for recognizing the union. That has left time for outside anti-union forces to try to dissuade workers from joining the UAW — time that many of those groups have capitalized upon.
Anti-union consultants get in the game
In a proposal dated Aug. 23, 2013, which was presented to a prominent anti-union group before being leaked to In These Times, Washington, DC-based consultant Matt Patterson outlined a vision of how anti-union forces can work with community groups to persuade VW workers that organizing is not in their long-term economic interest.
In the report, Patterson explained his approach thus far to laying the groundwork for an anti-union campaign, which he calls the “Keep Tennessee Free Project,” in Chattanooga. From last May to August, he said, he “leveraged a $4,000 budget into a deep and effective anti-UAW campaign that received national media attention, pressured politicians to issue public statements against unionization, forced the union to expend resources to counter our efforts, developed an extensive intelligence network that stretched from Chattanooga to Germany to Detroit and brought the terrible economic legacy of the UAW to the forefront of the debate.”
Patterson claimed that during the summer, he generated 63 stories denouncing the UAW effort in Chattanooga. In three months, he said, he was able to build a media echo chamber that now hammers Chattanooga with anti-union messaging on a regular basis.
And such remarks aren’t idle boasting. The fruits of Patterson’s anti-organizing crusade have appeared in the National Review, Forbes and local Chattanooga TV station WDEF 12, in addition to a host of smaller conservative talk radio shows.
But he didn’t stop there — he also gathered grassroots support. “Within a few weeks,” he wrote, “I had organized a coalition consisting of members of the Tea Party, Students for Liberty, former VW employees, politician and businessmen to craft and deliver a consistent message that has shaped public opinion.”