The Feb. 14 defeat of a United Auto Workers effort to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., is rightly being portrayed as a sort of St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for the labor movement. But there was, amid this debacle, at least one seemingly hopeful sign for unions: Grover Norquist takes them seriously. That’s more than you can say about labor’s liberal allies.
A UAW defeat south of the Mason-Dixon line wouldn’t ordinarily qualify as news, given the South’s longstanding reluctance (Norma Rae notwithstanding) to unionize its manufacturing sector. In this instance, though, something unusual happened: Management stayed neutral. Indeed, VW favored unionizing the plant so that it could create cooperative European-style “works councils” there. (VW says it will press ahead with the works councils, but U.S. labor law makes that difficult when there is no union.)
VW’s neutrality rendered irrelevant most of the usual obstacles that plague organizing efforts today. These make it laughably easy for businesses to quash union drives. Management, for instance, can bar unions from presenting their case to the workers on company property. In Chattanooga, Volkswagen waived that privilege.
The legal obstacles to labor organizing derive principally from the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which the “card check” bill, much-discussed at the start of Obama’s presidency, would have partly repealed. But that bill came nine votes short of the 60 needed to break a Senate filibuster in 2007, and Obama lost whatever chance he had to enact it when the Democrats lost the House in 2010. The UAW didn’t need card check to win in Chattanooga because VW wasn’t trying to influence the vote.
So why did it lose anyway?
In large part because Republican politicians were determined to keep the UAW out. Sen. Bob Corker, after pledging to remain neutral, claimed two days before the vote that if the plant were unionized, he was “very certain” it would lose its chance to make VW’s new midsize SUV—contradicting an earlier statement by VW’s CEO and prompting a denial from the chief of VW’s Chattanooga operations. In addition, two high-ranking GOP state legislators said a pro-union vote would threaten future state subsidies to the plant.
But the most surprising part in this drama was played by Grover Norquist, in a role that conservatives, in more typical past unionization fights, would have identified as “outside agitator.” Norquist’s nonprofit Americans For Tax Reform, inventors of the famous I-won’t-raise-taxes pledge, turned out to be funding a union-busting arm called the Center for Worker Freedom that waged a public campaign against the UAW in Chattanooga.
The CWF replaced an earlier ATR organization dating to 1998 called the Alliance for Worker Freedom. The AWF conducted research and lobbied against pro-labor legislation (of which there’s been precious little in recent years). The rebranded Center for Worker Freedom, on the other hand, took the fight directly to the factory floor. In November Mike Elk of In These Times reported that CWF executive director Matt Patterson, a former staffer at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, brought the project to ATR after floating to several conservative groups a proposal that promised “significant impact can made be over the next year in Tennessee, Alabama, and throughout the South to keep the UAW from organizing the foreign-owned auto facilities.”
When reached by e-mail, ATR spokesman John Kartch said the switch from AWF to CWF wasn’t linked to any shift in tactics. Kartch was vague about when CWF was formed (“at some point”), but the In These Times report suggested Patterson and ATR teamed up in late summer or early fall. “The UAW push in Chattanooga was an excellent time to get out information to the community and to the whole country about unions and their impact,” Kartch told msnbc. “We plan for the Center to be very active over the next several years.”
In Chattanooga, the CWF didn’t hesitate to take off the gloves and portray the UAW bid in culture-war terms. One billboard crossed out the “Auto” in “United Auto Workers” and replaced it with “Obama.” A radio ad stated, “Chattanooga is not Germany or Detroit. At least not yet.” And in a sort of verbal waving of the Confederate flag, Patterson coauthored an op-ed that likened the fight to a Civil War battle. “One hundred and fifty years ago, the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga,” Patterson wrote. “Let their descendants go now and do likewise.”
Can Norquist’s interest be taken as a hopeful sign that the U.S. labor movement still has enough life in it to warrant an attempt to extinguish it? “We now enter a period lasting three years where Obama writes the rules for private sector unionization through the [National Labor Relations Board],” Norquist replied by e-mail. “Unions are more likely to make progress with Obama's NLRB appointees' finger on the scales.” That’s a pretty grandiose way of saying that since July Obama has been able, for the first time since he became president, to install all five members of the board—two of them chosen by the GOP—after years of deliberate obstruction by congressional Republicans who wish the NLRB (created way back in 1935) didn’t exist. If that constitutes a labor revival, wake me when it’s over.
To counter the NLRB quorum, Norquist continued, the GOP now “writes the rules in 24 states with half of the nation's population for public sector unionization…Workers and taxpayers are more likely to make progress in GOP states following the Wisconsin model in public sector.” What light that sheds on CWF’s participation in Chattanooga’s private-sector union vote is anybody’s guess. Perhaps Norquist sees it as a mere extension of state-house politics, won predictably on turf the GOP controls. (Tennessee’s governor and state legislature are both Republican.) At any rate, CWF is now preparing to wage a similar fight against the UAW over unionizing a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama’s Tuscaloosa County.
The odd thing about ATR’s surge in anti-union activism through CWF is that there’s no shortage of organizations like the National Right To Work Committee and Americans for Prosperity already walking the anti-union beat. Indeed, if CWF isn’t careful it may find its nonprofit self creating unwanted competition for a thriving sector of the for-profit economy--consultancies that specialize in helping businesses defeat union organizers.
At any rate, with private-sector union density in the U.S. at less than 7%—down from a peak of nearly 40% in the early 1950s—it would be hard to argue that the labor movement is resurgent. Rather, the anti-labor forces are being comically vigilant. Have you noticed it’s only anti-labor conservatives who still make reference to “Big Labor”? It sounds like a term of cruel mockery—the equivalent of addressing a bald person as “curly.”
One labor communications official confides that, judging from the queries he fields, “the people who pay most attention now to labor [are] the right.” Pro-business funders, perhaps convinced that the country’s newfound interest in inequality and opportunity will put new life in labor, are flocking to suppress it, even as signs of labor’s comeback are faint at best. But perhaps the right’s anti-union activities will persuade centrist liberals who keep unions at arm’s length that it’s time to join the fight. In fact, it’s long past time. Should these liberals re-engage, then perhaps a real revival of the labor movement might follow.