Freeman: Haslam injected politics into VW/UAW matter

Freeman: Haslam injected politics into VW/UAW matter

April 24th, 2014 by By Bill Freeman in Opinion Columns

Imagine, if you will, that President Barack Obama was secretly offering businesses taxpayer dollars if they change their business models and encourage workers to join labor unions. Imagine if Obama denied he was doing it, but documents surfaced that proved he was.

Republicans would rightly be outraged.

But Tennessee Republicans in power are defending Gov. Bill Haslam for doing basically the same thing, only with an anti-union tilt, in regard to Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant and the workers there.

Essentially, the Haslam administration offered Volkswagen $300 million contingent on VW making what the Haslam administration considered the right choice regarding unionization. They later withdrew the offer after it became clear that Volkswagen was not as anti-union as the administration wanted it to be. Yet, before VW workers voted on United Auto Workers representation, Haslam denied his administration was doing any such thing, but documents uncovered by the news media prove otherwise.

Those documents show that the Haslam administration's offer of incentives to VW to expand the Chattanooga plant and create 1,350 new jobs was contingent on "works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee."

VW's plants in Germany have "works councils" of employees who help manage the factories, and VW wants to run its Chattanooga plant the same way. But U.S. law requires a unionized work force for a company to have such "works councils."

The UAW has beneficially represented thousands of workers at the GM plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., ever since that plant first started producing Saturn cars in 1990. But many conservative Republicans like those currently governing Tennessee don't like labor unions and don't want workers to join unions, so it is no surprise -- and no scandal -- that Haslam and other top Republicans in Tennessee urged VW workers to reject the UAW. But secretly using tax dollars as leverage to encourage or punish VW based on its support or opposition to the UAW is over the line.

Republicans often complain about President Obama "picking winners and losers" in the energy sector by offering funding to green-energy start-ups, but here in Tennessee Republicans are serving as Haslam's palace defenders, refusing to hold legislative hearings on Haslam's attempt to use tax dollars to reward or punish a company based on whether its legitimate business decision meets the governor's ideological approval.

A 19th century British politician and historian, Lord Acton, never met Haslam, but his simple political axiom that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" certainly fits this situation. Republicans, holding the governor's office and large majorities in both houses of the legislature, know that the opposition party can't make them do the right thing and investigate the Haslam administration's actions and lies.

A governor who uses tax dollars to reward or punish companies based on the governor's political ideology is doing something that is deeply corrupt. No governor -- Republican or Democrat -- should engage in such conduct. Incentives for companies to expand and add jobs should be administered fairly, without regard to politics.

But while this administration offers taxpayer-funded incentives to Beretta, a gun manufacturer that obviously fits within the Republican guns-everywhere ideology, it tied incentives for VW to its anti-union ideology.

Congressional Democrats are planning hearings, but Tennessee Republicans are balking at cooperating, calling it a partisan attack. Ironic, as it was Gov. Haslam and other Tennessee Republicans who launched a partisan attack against the UAW and its supporters at Volkswagen.

Tennessee Democrats have rightly called for legislative hearings into this corruption of the incentives process, too. But, with so few Democrats in the legislature, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate leader Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey aren't moving to hold the governor accountable. Because they hold near-absolute power, they are refusing to hold hearings -- enabling the governor to politicize the state's economic development efforts.

Tennessee is still a business-friendly state. But, as long as Republicans hold absolute power in this state, businesses that don't adhere to their ideology must now fear that they will be treated worse than business that do.

Bill Freeman is the co-founder and co-owner of Freeman Webb Co., a real estate investment, management and brokerage company established in 1979. Freeman Webb owns and manages over a billion dollars in apartment properties and over 500 units in Chattanooga. Freeman is the former treasurer of the Tennessee Democratic Party.