Former labor secretary backs UAW, blasts state officials for interference

photo Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich chided Tennessee political leaders Friday for trying to influence workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant to reject representation by the United Auto Workers union.

"I just don't think that any political leaders should do anything to influence a union vote," Reich said during a video chat Friday night with more than 100 labor, church and community leaders gathered at the IBEW labor hall. "I think that violates the spirit of what is fair."

Reich, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley and an outspoken proponent of organized labor, said unions are key to limiting the growing income inequality in America and ensuring the success of democracy in America. The former labor secretary and long-time friend of former President Bill Clinton said the U.S. economy did far better through the 1950s and 1960s when more workers belonged to labor unions, and workers today in countries like Germany and Denmark and doing better than most Americans, in part, because of stronger labor unions in those countries.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., said they did not want the UAW to represent workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga because they fear it would discourage automotive suppliers from locating in Tennessee. Many suppliers don't want to deal with the UAW, Haslam said.

The Tennessee Republicans and other anti-union business groups blamed the United Auto Workers for the economic problems of America's Big 3 auto makers and the Motor City, which filed for municipal bankruptcy last year.

"Just look at Detroit and all the problems they have which I think the UAW contributed to creating," Corker said during the unionization campaign at the VW plant last month.

Corker and Haslam said they spoke against the UAW because Volkswagen as an employer did not. VW allowed UAW representatives into the plant to make their case for the union.

VW hourly workers in Chattanooga voted 712-626 in February not to join the United Auto Workers. But the union is asking the National Labor Relations Board to order a new election because of what the UAW says were illegal outside threats by politicians.

Three days before the union election began, State Sen. Bo Watson and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said the Republican-controlled Legislature would be less willing to support tax breaks and other incentives for VW to expand and add a new sports utility vehicle line if workers voted to be represented by the UAW. Corker also said Volkswagen would soon announce plans to expand the plant if workers turned down the UAW.

Nearly two months after the vote, both sides are still fighting over the validity of the election and what the NLRB should do now. VW has yet to announce any decision on a plant expansion.

Bryon Spencer, a 31-year-old production worker who installs doors at the Volkswagen plant, said he supports the UAW and is convinced the plant will ultimately be unionized. But he said the comments by Watson and McCormick "were a direct threat" to VW and its workers and likely turned some workers against the union in the final days before the vote.

"It's going to be difficult, but with the community backing we see here tonight, I know we will eventually prevail," Spencer said.

Friday night's event was organized by a variety of labor supporters and liberal groups, including Move to Amend which is calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that corporations enjoy free speech rights to contribute cash to campaigns.

Katie Crowley-Carpenter, who is soliciting petitions for the constitutional amendment, organized the showing of Reich's film on "Inequality for All" to highlight what she says is "a moral issue" of injustice.

"I see people in my city suffering and wondering how they are going to get by everyday," she said. "Tennessee has the highest percentage of workers getting paid the lowest wage allowed by law."

Reich said raising the minimum wage, making the tax system more progressive and expanding labor unions would help offset the forces of globalization and technology that are increasing income inequality in the U.S.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.