VOICES: Another lying Tennessee politician exposed in the UAW-VW vote in Chattanooga
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Another lying Tennessee politician has been exposed in the aftermath of the Valentine's Day 712-626 vote rejecting United Auto Workers representation at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
NewsChannel 5/WTVF chief investigative reporter Phil Williams in Nashville reported last week that state Gov. Bill Haslam apparently lied when he denied his administration's role in a plot to make a $300 million offer of taxpayer-funded incentives to the company contingent on keeping the UAW out of the plant.
Williams cited a confidential document leaked to his station summarizing the Haslam administration's "Project Trinity" program. The document, which state government officials had refused to give to a Nashville newspaper, described an offer of $300 million to Volkswagen to expand its Chattanooga plant with the requirement that "the incentives … are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee."
Volkswagen had been in negotiations with the UAW to establish a German-style works council at the plant that would allow union representation for workers on wages, benefits, safety conditions and other issues.
Williams said rumors had circulated among Democratic politicians in Tennessee that incentives were tied to the union vote, but Haslam repeatedly denied these.
In other words, Haslam is a liar like his Republican friend, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. In the days before the election, and after pledging he would not get involved in the matter because "I do not think it is appropriate," Corker came out from under his self-imposed rock and warned that Volkswagen will only expand its plant if workers reject the UAW. Volkswagen-Chattanooga CEO Frank Fisher denied Corker's claim.
Corker also said Volkswagen would become a "laughingstock" if it allowed a union to set up at the Chattanooga plant.
Although the workers did reject the UAW, Corker's promise of a plant expansion announcement within two weeks of the election never materialized. In fact, the company's top labor representative in Germany has said he and Volkswagen's powerful works council in Germany may block any further expansion or investment in the U.S. South until workers there get union representation.
The revelations about Haslam's role in the union vote at Volkswagen undoubtedly will add fuel to efforts by the UAW to get the National Labor Relations Board to invalidate the election. The union says outside interference undermined the integrity of the vote. The NewsChannel 5/WTVF report raises questions whether Haslam and Corker coordinated their attack on the UAW.
A hard-learned lesson about labor organizing in the South can be found in the 1987 movie Matewan, which tells the story of the violent confrontation between coal miners and company thugs in Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920.
"The coal company doesn't want this union," labor organizer Joe Kenehan, played by actor Chris Cooper, warns black, white and Italian immigrant miners arguing with each other rather than unifying against their common enemy. "The state government doesn't want it. The federal government doesn't want it. All of 'em are looking for an excuse to come down and crush us to nothing."<
In the February vote in Chattanooga, the company said it was actually open to the union although low and mid-level management worked against it. Still, workers faced a barrage of anti-union propaganda, including more than a dozen billboards making such claims as the UAW is only a cover for the "United Obama Workers."
Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into Chattanooga from Washington, D.C., and the pockets of Grover Norquist and his conservative Americans for Tax Reform. It was the local branch of Norquist's organization, called the Center for Worker Freedom, that financed the billboards.
Labor organizer Joe Kenehan had some additional advice for his striking miners in Matewan that workers in the South need to remember today. "We got to pick away at this situation, slow and careful. We got to organize and build support. We got to work together."
A united front by workers -- black, white, immigrant and native-born -- is the only way to deal with the united front that wants to keep unions out of the South.
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.