Travesty in Chattanooga

I wish I could say I’ve never seen the likes of the campaign of intimidation that led to the vote against UAW representation at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Friday. But I did, as a child growing up in a Georgia textile company town in the early 1960s, where public schools began the year on Labor Day, the word “union” was not said out loud, and people still graphically remembered National Guardsmen being called out to break a strike at Callaway Mills back in 1935–the same year Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act.

I’m a little rusty on my labor law, but I’m reasonably sure that any employer who issued the sorts of threats made by Republican politicians in Tennessee (including Sen. Bob Corker, Gov. Bill Haslam, and a variety of state legislators, backed by national conservative figures like Grove Norquist) against a unionization effort would have been in blatant violation of the NLRA. But that’s what makes the incident such a travesty: it wasn’t the employer fighting the union (VW by all accounts was neutral-to-positive towards unionization, which would have facilitated establishment of the kind of “work council” the company had set up at other international plants to help maintain good employer-employee relations). As Brent Snavely of the Detroit Free Press reported (probably incredulously):

The crusade by anti-union forces in Tennessee, including the state’s governor and senior senator, is as much a fight with Volkswagen management as with the UAW.

Not only are Republican legislators accusing Volkswagen of backing the UAW, some of their leaders on Monday threatened to withhold tax incentives for future expansion of the three-year-old assembly plant in Chattanooga if workers vote this week to join the UAW.

So addicted are Tennessee Republicans to the “race to the bottom” approach to economic development that they are willing to risk the good will of an existing employer in their zeal to make sure their own people are kept in as submissive a position as possible. President Obama’s reported comment during a Democratic retreat last week that the pols involved in this union-busting effort are “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers” is one way to put it; I’d say they’ve internalized the ancient despicable tendency of the southern aristocracy to favor the abasement of working people as an end in itself.

This incident is also a pretty good symptom of the radicalization of the Republican Party. It’s one thing to oppose collective bargaining rights for public employees, or to defend “right-to-work” laws that interfere with the contracting rights of employers and employees and create “freeriders” who benefit from union collective bargaining without paying dues. But now the very existence of private-sector unions, a familiar part of the American landscape for most of the last century, is under attack from Republican politicians.

I thought it was bizarre when SC Governor Nikki Haley said in her 2012 State of the State address: “We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina.” Turns out she was ahead of the curve.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.