VOICES: Tennessee governor and Volkswagen give middle finger to workers

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's appearance at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant this week shows how government officials and corporations in the South work in concert to bust unions. (Official portrait.)

In an extraordinary act of coercion, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee led an anti-union meeting on Monday at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, where last month workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election to join the United Auto Workers. All of the plant's day shift employees were required to attend, but the broader public was shut out. No other politicians were invited, and journalists were not allowed in the building.

Audio of the meeting, obtained by Labor Notes, reveals the most powerful politician in the state throwing his support behind Volkswagen management and against the plant's workers.

"Every workplace has challenges, and there are things in your workplace that you wish were different. My experience is that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you're working for me, that's when the environment works the best," the governor stated.

The governor's comments are an unprecedented demonstration of how government officials and corporations in the South work hand-in-hand to bust unions.

"We've had Republican governors using the power of their office to speak out against specific unions before, but nothing quite like this," said John Logan, director of labor and employment relations at San Francisco State University. "I'm quite surprised, and almost nothing surprises me in anti-union campaigns these days."

If facing down a powerful global corporation and rabidly anti-worker politicians weren't enough, the courageous pro-union workers at Volkswagen also have to contend with an army of corporate front groups, such as the Center for Union Facts, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and Southern Momentum. In the space of just a few weeks, these groups have put up websites, made online videos, purchased billboards, penned editorials, and taken out newspaper ads.

Why are all these groups involving themselves in this fight? Because the benefits of unionization are so abundantly obvious that companies like Volkswagen have to do everything they can to intimidate, harass, confuse and cajole workers into voting against the union.

Unionized workers on average make higher wages, pay less for health care and have more robust pensions. Union workers also enjoy safer and more tolerable working conditions and fewer injuries.

According to Volkswagen's own company newsletter, the average production worker in Chattanooga received a merit-based bonus of $3,682 last year. That isn't even half of the $10,750 profit sharing bonus that production workers made just up the road at the General Motors plant in Smyrna. The difference? Smyrna GM workers are members of UAW Local 1853 and their bonuses are negotiated collectively.

But wasn't Volkswagen neutral in the 2014 union election? Aren't they an enlightened European employer that believes in protecting the environment and giving workers a voice?

Far from being a socially responsible employer and community member, Volkswagen has shown that it is willing put the public, consumers, and its own employees' livelihoods at risk for the sake of maximizing profits. In 2015 the company was busted for installing "defeat devices" on over 11 million autos — software that enabled the cars to cheat emissions tests while pumping out lethal levels of poison into the atmosphere.

It's little wonder that Volkswagen is now fully embracing the South's anti-worker business environment. The company was more than happy to take the $554 million subsidy package Tennessee offered for the plant to be located here — the largest taxpayer handout given to a foreign automaker at the time.

What did our community get in in return? The lowest paying jobs in the auto industry, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Automotive Research. As for the workers that are trying to improve the jobs that Tennesseans paid for, Volkswagen and their political surrogates are displaying nothing but contempt.

"Many an officeholder has acted behind the scenes to assist corporations at the expense of working people, but none that I know of has been as blatant as Bill Lee," said Priscilla Murollo, a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College. "He and Volkswagen have given a great big middle finger to the people of Tennessee."