Can a Senator Stop a Union? Bob Corker Is Certainly Trying

Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee could decide the future of unionization in the South today. Why the right is possibly breaking the law to get them to vote ‘no.’

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Sometime today, we’re expected to find out whether the workers in that Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen plant have decided to unionize. I hope very much that they didn’t let Sen. Bob Corker’s intimidation campaign—which strikes me as a possible violation of the Wagner Act, a point to which I’ll return—scare them out of voting yes.

The vote is the perfect occasion to recall that, on the right’s very long hate list of abortionists and gays and undocumented workers and Kenyans and so on and so on, very few groups—perhaps none—occupy a higher spot than labor unions.

This may seem an odd thing for me to say. After all, we argue, our two broad political sides, about gays and immigrants all the time. It never stops. But unions, we don’t discuss much. This would give the impression that they aren’t that important to the two sides anymore.

Alas, that’s only half true. Paradoxically, perhaps, it’s on the left that unions aren’t that important today. Most liberal activists are far more interested in women’s rights, LGBT rights, climate change, and other issues that are more au courant. Furthermore, most liberal activists are white-collar, and, how to put it, white-skinned upper-middle-class people who no longer feel any deep and reflexive empathy for the working classes. Liberal elites are more interested in other people and things. The broad left’s enthusiasm for unions is still real, but it’s a shadow of what it once was.

The broad right’s hatred of unions, however, is not a shadow of what it once was. It is a seething, boiling, roiling, apoplectic revulsion at the very idea of unions. I remember some episodes I encountered back in 2009 that really brought this home to me.

Obama was just settling in to the Oval Office, and libs of course were full of the big plans they had for the next eight years. Health care, finance reform, climate change, same-sex marriage, all the rest; plus the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, a little concatenation of measures designed to try to take the management thumb off the scale during organizing drives.

I would talk with pro-labor senators and House members I knew, Democrats, and they’d expressed optimism that EFCA was really going to see the light of day. They’d always just come back from an encouraging meeting at the White House. Then I’d check this against some conservatives I spoke to. Or not even. You didn’t even have to be a journalist. All you had to do was go to a public seminar and pay attention, and take note of the looks that crossed the faces of conservatives the second EFCA was mentioned. No. Never.

To the modern right, the labor movement was the scourge of America when it had real power. It was true at the time—go back and read the things Barry Goldwater and less well-known early conservative movement players had to say about Walter Reuther. He was literally the devil to them. And it’s true now. The Treaty of Detroit, and the general idea that management should make peace with labor, was and is anathema to these people.

In those days, the hard right had no real influence among the titans of corporate America. The titans were Republicans, by and large, to be sure. But they weren’t right-wing. They saw that labor had its place, and however grudgingly, they respected it and decided to live with it.

This meant that even in a place like Tennessee, labor unions were a part of life. Michael Honey, a labor historian at the University of Washington who’s researched labor movements in the South extensively, told me that union density in Tennessee was upwards of 20 percent back in the Reuther days, and even beyond. From the 1940s until the 1970s, Honey says, “the state had lots of legislators, governors, senators, and congresspeople who weren’t exactly pro-union, but you wouldn’t call them anti-union at all. They always had to be pressured, but they weren’t vituperatively anti-union by any means.” Even Alabama, Honey says, wasn’t ridiculously anti-union in the mid-20th century. Mississippi was “probably the worst, because of its plantation aristocracy.”

But today? Forget it. Obviously Corker has a personal investment here, since he helped bring this plant to Chattanooga, but he’s merely behaving as you would expect a conservative Southern senator to behave. And today, unlike in the 1950s, the hard-right has gained much more of a foothold in corporate America. Honey told me that when he wrote a pro-union opinion column in a Washington state newspaper, he noticed immediately afterward that Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had a column on the same pages. That’s how much the right cares about labor. And they aren’t happy with a private-sector union density of just under 7 percent. They want 0 percent.

In foreign-owned auto plants throughout the South, it is 0 percent. And they damn well want it to stay there. That gives you an idea of why this is so important to the right. Even when Volkswagen says it doesn’t care and would welcome a union, Corker and the other pols say “no way” and uncork, as it were, their own coercion campaign, with Corker’s now-infamous comment that he was “assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.”

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Honey says he believes that Corker and other pols “are probably violating the Wagner Act.” That 1935 law set the basic conditions under which a union election can take place, later amended in 1947’s Taft-Hartley. It’s not completely clear whether local politicians, rather than management, can be found guilty of violating the labor law in such a way that a new election must be ordered. But I devoutly hope that if the workers vote no, Obama’s National Labor Relations Board orders a new election.

But mostly, let’s hope they vote yes. It would be a great jolt for labor, a blow against the reactionaries, and who knows—20 years from now, maybe the pivotal moment in the shift back to a society more like we had a half-century ago, which must be good because it’s exactly what the 1 percent fears.