Prior to the vote on whether to unionize a Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) plant in Chattanooga, the state of Tennessee was the site of a proxy war between non-union groups and the supporters of organized labor. Many considered the vote a historic event in the U.S. South, where unions have not held sway in automotive plants. Tennesee Rebpublican Senator Bob Corker was perhaps the most vocal and aggressive in his campaign to defeat the union in Chattanooga. In fact, questionable statements by Senator Corker may have influenced the outcome that went against the United Auto Workers (UAW).
Workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant voted against UAW membership by a vote of 712 to 625 in the vote that ended February 14. The 87-vote margin was a shift from a vote which the UAW collected in late 2013. In that tally, UAW representatives showed more than half the workers at the Chattanooga plant supported unionization. Leadership at the Volkswagen plant said the company was not against a union presence in Chattanooga. VW, now the second-biggest automaker in the world after passing GM (NYSE:GM), has written its success story with union labor around the world. But Republican lawmakers from Tennessee were very much opposed to the idea of the UAW in Chattanooga.
Senator Corker flooded the media with warnings of how UAW organizing “will have an effect on our community’s ability…to recruit businesses,” The Washington Post reported February 13. However, Corker was only getting warmed up. The day before the final votes were counted at the plant, Corker told Reuters he was “very certain that if the UAW is voted down” then Volkswagen would announce new investment in Chattanooga’s plant within weeks. Frank Fischer, Chief executive of the VW Chattanooga plant, told Reuters there was simply “no connection” between the vote and the decision to build another vehicle in Tennessee.
Asked by Reuters to identify a source for his comments about VW and the Chattanooga plant, Senator Corker wouldn’t identify one. He told the news agency he wouldn’t have made the statement “without being confident it was true and factual.” While the wording of Corker’s comment leaves open the possibility it is inaccurate, the senator from Tennessee doubled down on his statement by saying his information was better than the Volkswagen plant’s chief executive’s, Reuters reports.
Many workers and observers wondered why Corker went so far in his fight against unionizing the plant when Volkswagen as a company was not. In a statement following the UAW’s loss in the February 14 vote, Chattanooga plant CEO Frank Fischer suggested the bid to organize workers had not ended.
“Our employees have not made a decision that they are against a works council,” Fischer said, according to The Washington Post. “Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant.”
Anti-union efforts led by Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, Senator Corker, and other interests flooded Tennessee media with statements, billboards, and media ads in the run-up to the election. In the case of Senator Corker’s comments, it’s impossible to say how much they swayed the eighty-seven votes it took to defeat the UAW.
Other factors, including the UAW’s agreement to sign a “neutrality pact” with VW, may have suggested to workers that union representation wouldn’t mean higher wages in the end. Nonetheless, sabotage based on information from unnamed company sources — sources that contradict Volkswagen’s public position — could have been the difference-maker for Senator Corker.