In an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board on Friday, the
UAW said there was a "coordinated effort" by state politicians,
anti-union groups and Tennessee's U.S. Senator Bob Corker to coerce
a no vote in the February 12-14 election.
The union's NLRB filing offered scant detail to support the
allegation, and Reuters interviews with more than a dozen players
over the past week also provide no evidence of close contacts either
between the politicians and the groups or among the groups
However, through the interviews a more complete picture emerges of
how at least five national organizations and one grassroots group — all apparently operating independently — mounted a formidable threat
to the UAW and helped thwart what many initially viewed as the
favorite to win the election.
How that loose coalition was able to help defeat the UAW could
provide a blueprint for conservative groups to oppose the union as
it presses on with its campaign for representation in its first
foreign-owned auto plant in the U.S. South.
Central to the anti-union effort in Chattanooga, Tennessee was an
attempt to win not just the hearts and minds of auto workers but
also those of their friends and families.
The UAW ran a fairly traditional campaign: meeting workers,
distributing fliers and running radio ads. Anti-union forces, who
were not allowed to campaign at the plant, waged war outside.
Throughout Chattanooga, they held town hall meetings, launched
anti-UAW websites, wrote numerous op-ed opinion pieces and radio
ads, and put up billboards.
"My thinking is workers don't operate in a vacuum. They operate in a
community and when the community realizes how much is at stake for
everyone, then that message reaches everyone," said Matt Patterson,
one of the chief architects of the winning anti-union strategy.
Anti-union activists say there was no coordinated campaign to defeat
the UAW and no strategizing with Republican politicians who were
speaking out against the vote. But several of the high-profile
conservative groups and their affiliates previously have worked
together on such hot-button issues as right-to-work and the rights
of public employee unions.
These included the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation,
Americans for Tax Reform and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
All are based in or just outside of Washington, and all helped to
get right-to-work legislation passed in Nevada.
"It was a fairly intensive campaign, the likes of which we haven't
seen previously in an NLRB election," said John Logan, director of
Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, of
the Chattanooga effort.
As union elections go, the one in Chattanooga was unusual because
the employer did not oppose the union. Union leaders, more used to
facing opposition from company bosses on the shop floor, appear to
have been caught off-guard by their opponents' strategy to take
their campaign from the factory to the streets of Chattanooga.
"The ferocity of outside political and financial forces was
unprecedented," said AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka at his union's
winter meeting this week in Houston. Trumka described the
opposition's campaign in Chattanooga as "an experiment by forces of
Conservative Republicans, including Tennessee's governor, spoke out
strongly against the UAW in the final days of the election campaign.
Among the most vocal critics of the union was Senator Corker, the
former mayor of Chattanooga who helped bring the plant to his city
Some conservative leaders acknowledge that defeating the UAW in
Chattanooga was crucial to their broader battle-plan to keep
organized labor from making inroads in southern states.
"GATEWAY TO THE SOUTH"
Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who heads the influential
Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, described the UAW vote at
Volkswagen as "step one" in a union march on the south. "They get
this (plant), then they start moving toward the other large
companies ... This is the gateway to the South, and by that I mean
all the right-to-work, not heavily unionized states."
Norquist said the strategy of the Center for Worker Freedom, an
affiliate of his Washington group, was to focus on the community and
not just the workers at the plant. Volkswagen had barred anti-union
groups from campaigning on company premises.
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The Center for Worker Freedom bought up every available billboard it
could find in town — 13 in all, he said.
"The various billboards weren't just to make sure that everyone
driving to the plant would see them but also so that everybody in
town would see them," said Norquist.
One billboard linked the UAW to Democratic President Barack Obama,
whose national approval ratings are dismally low, and another to the
demise of auto hub Detroit, which filed the biggest municipal
bankruptcy in U.S. history last July.
While the UAW has focused much of its post-election ire on Corker,
anti-union activists say a key player in their effort in Chattanooga
was Patterson, a little-known Norquist lieutenant who heads the
Center for Worker Freedom.
Patterson began laying the anti-union groundwork in Chattanooga last
spring, while still working for the Competitive Enterprise
Institute. He began writing a series of opinion pieces for
newspapers and helped organize local events.
"I thought if the UAW was going to have a victory in the South, then
this was going to be the place where they had the best chance,"
Patterson said in an interview.
Patterson was one of the featured speakers at an anti-union town
hall last July in Chattanooga. The event was organized by Mark West,
head of the Chattanooga Tea Party, and his neighbor Don Jackson,
former head of VW's Chattanooga plant.
Anti-union activists deny coordinating their efforts. But West and
Jackson said Patterson shared information, including newspaper
articles and opinion pieces, with Mike Burton, 56, a paint shop
worker at the VW plant who last summer began organizing anti-UAW
workers in Chattanooga and later formed a group called Southern
Burton, who became a poster boy for the anti-union movement, raised
more than $100,000, mainly from workers and local citizens,
according to Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney retained by
Some of the money was used to create a website, www.no2uaw.org,
develop a YouTube video and print anti-UAW fliers.
The Washington-based National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation
sent two of its lawyers to Chattanooga to provide free legal advice
to VW workers and wrote up anti-union press releases, according to
NRWLDF spokesman Patrick Semmens.
In January, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a Nashville-based
anti-union group hosted an "educational event" for about 75
community leaders at a Chattanooga hotel. It amplified its
anti-union message through social media and local newspapers.
Beacon president and CEO Justin Owen said if it hadn't been for the
cumulative efforts of grass-roots groups and national groups, "the
result could have been very different."
Norquist, Patterson and other conservative activists said they plan
to take the anti-union battle to other southern states and
manufacturers, including a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa,
Alabama, where the UAW has had an active organizing effort for more
than a year.
"This might become more a norm in organizing in the South, with
these groups getting involved in a similar way" in other states and
union elections, said labor expert Logan.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall
in Chattanooga, Amanda Becker in Washington and Paul Lienert in
Detroit; writing by Paul Lienert; editing by Ross Colvin)
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