It wasn’t long ago that employees at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., were likely to unionize. Workers broadly seemed to support the idea; the plant’s owners were on board; and the United Automobile Workers union was heavily involved in trying to seal the deal.
Everything was on track, right up until Republican officials in Tennessee intervened in a big way.
Late Friday night, after three days of voting, the results were announced: employees voted 712 to 626 – roughly 53% to 47% – against joining the UAW.
The U.A.W. lost the unionization campaign even though it took place with one highly unusual – and highly favorable – circumstance. Unlike most American companies, Volkswagen pledged to remain neutral, in some ways offering quiet support to the union.
Nevertheless, Republican politicians in Tennessee as well as some outside conservative groups made sure that the plant’s nearly 1,600 workers heard plenty of anti-union arguments.
It was as ferocious an anti-union campaign as anything Americans have seen in a while. Indeed, the Republican effort, bolstered by inside-the-Beltway lobbying activists like Grover Norquist, featured both carrots and sticks: GOP policymakers not only threatened to kill tax incentives for the plant if workers joined a union, but Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he had secret knowledge that if employees turned down the UAW, the plant would be rewarded with a new product line.
Corker, it’s worth noting, had promised not to intervene during the voting process. It’s unclear why he broke his word and made comments that contradicted the company’s own executives.
There’s no great mystery as to why Republicans pulled out the stops to defeat unionization. GOP officials have always been hostile towards labor, but with unions serving as a key pillar in Democratic Party support, Corker, Norquist, and their allies were that much more motivated to win in Chattanooga. What’s more, because labor is weakest in the South, Republicans feared unionization at this VW plant might lead to more organized workers throughout the region.
So what happens now?
For UAW, the setback is obviously a severe disappointment and missed opportunity. But it’ll also be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of the promises Republicans made in the lead up to the vote.
Republicans fighting a yearslong unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee painted a grim picture in the days leading up to last week’s vote. They said if Chattanooga employees joined the United Auto Workers, jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.
Now that workers have rejected the UAW in a close vote, attention turns to whether the GOP can fulfill its promises that keeping the union out means more jobs will come rolling in, the next great chapter in the flourishing of foreign auto makers in the South.
Corker, in particular, gambled quite a bit of credibility on the outcome. VW said the outcome of the workers’ vote would have no bearing on future production decisions, but the Republican suggested the exact opposite. A decision on the future of a new midsized sport utility vehicle should come in a couple of weeks, and if Corker was wrong, he’ll have some explaining to do.
Of course, whatever the outcome, Republicans arguably still owe people an explanation for using over-the-top tactics to help dictate the outcome of this unionization vote.