Last month, in one of the most closely watched National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections in decades, workers voted by the narrowest of margins to reject representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW). But they did so only after being subjected to an unprecedented campaign of threats and intimidation conducted by leading GOP politicians and external anti-union groups with links to Grover Norquist and other right-wing activists. Although GOP leaders in the state legislature and Tennessee's Governor played important roles in this coercive campaign, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker did the most to undermine a free election at Volkswagen.
To recap: In the days leading up to the election, GOP leaders in the Tennessee House and Senate threatened to withhold financial incentives for Volkswagen -- effectively holding hostage future employment at the plant -- if workers voted for the union. Then, on the first day of the three-day election, Corker promised workers that if they rejected the UAW, Volkswagen would announce within two weeks that it would locate production of a new SUV to the Chattanooga plant.
Volkswagen management immediately refuted his comments, but even then Corker insisted that his statement was "1000% accurate in every way," claiming he had better information about the company's plans than Volkswagen's highest American executive. Corker's two-week post-election period ended last Friday, with no sign of an announcement from the company.
When challenged about his comments, Corker first claimed that inflamed tempers over the election result had delayed the investment announcement, and then he stated that the UAW's decision to appeal the outcome was to blame for the silence coming from Germany.
There is little doubt that Corker's comments were intended to create confusion among the Volkswagen workers and to pressure them into voting against the UAW. One need only consider the title of Corker's press release on day one of the election, which leaves little room for misinterpretation: "Corker: Conversations Today Indicate a Vote Against UAW is a Vote for SUV Production." Corker told the Volkswagen workers that a vote against the UAW is a vote for more jobs and greater security.
After the election, a "thrilled" Sen. Corker downplayed the significance of his election-day threat. Interviewed on Fox News, Corker explained that his statements were certainly not "guarantees" of anything. Claiming that he was simply seeking to correct comments made by union supporters, Corker said his coercive statements certainly were not intended as threats, and had minimal impact on the outcome of the election.
Corker has complained that he is the union's "public enemy no. 1" solely because he opposed the UAW and it lost the election. But Corker's opposition to the UAW is not the issue. Rather, the issue is whether he deliberately misled Chattanooga workers into voting against the union by saying their vote would determine their job security.
Predictably, Corker is attempting to shift focus onto the union and the NLRB, claiming that he and other GOP lawmakers are under threat of being "muzzled." But no one has suggested that Corker and other lawmakers cannot express their dislike of unions or their distaste for the UAW. What is being suggested -- with compelling evidence to back it up -- is that threats and untruthful comments made by top GOP politicians in the days leading up to the election interfered with the workers' right to a free election and undermined a fair vote.
John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.