After several weeks of controversy, some 1,700 hourly workers at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant are expected to vote this week on whether to approve a contractual relationship with the United Auto Workers union. It is important to note that in the run-up to the vote, at least two themes formed the basis of the anti-UAW campaign. Both undermined the opponents' purported concern for the welfare of VW workers.
One was a paternalistic attitude that delivered a simple yet condescending message to the VW work force: Even though all of you are adults, we know what is best for you in this matter, even if it means voting against what could be your best interests.
The other was an effort to demonize the UAW. This involved suggesting that if the workers are so independence-minded as to vote in favor of representation by the union they would in effect embrace what the union opponents claimed is a criminal enterprise.
Thus the anti-UAW campaign resorted to full-page newspaper ads and apocalyptic radio ads to drive home its ominous but unpersuasive message that the union is an economic threat to Chattanooga's future.
The concept of accountability is obviously important since without it, both union bosses and corporate executives can become corrupt, often even criminally so.
For a broader understanding of that concept, however, think back to the economic crisis that convulsed the American economy earlier in the previous decade. Thousands of workers in the financial sector lost their jobs when their employers declared bankruptcy or, as in the case of Lehman Brothers, ceased to exist. Yet few if any executives were held personally accountable for their role in a crisis that nearly destroyed the American economy.
The Times Free Press reported last month that the Center for Union Facts, based in Washington, "has cited the conviction of four senior [UAW] officials in an ongoing federal investigation and it has noted the [union's] spending habits have come under intense public scrutiny."
In other words, those officials were being held accountable for their actions. But it is dishonest to suggest that the UAW is somehow responsible for the closing of automobile factories nationwide, thereby implying the VW factory here could suffer the same fate.
Actually, the plant's future is remarkably brighter. Volkswagen has announced it plans to invest more than $800 million in the production of electric cars at the Chattanooga plant and add some 1,000 jobs.
That announcement effectively rebuts Gov. Bill Lee's hope that VW workers will vote against the UAW's organizing campaign. During a visit to Chattanooga, Lee said that an increased union presence in Tennessee will hurt the state's economic competitiveness.
In a Times Free Press report describing his responsibility for economic development by recruiting more companies to locate in Tennessee, Lee said that "it is more difficult to recruit companies to states that have higher levels of organized [labor] activity. That is why, I think, it is in the best interest of the workers at Volkswagen — and really for the economics of our state — that Volkswagen stay a merit [non-union] shop."
Oh, come now.
Lee was a successful businessman before his election and that suggests he will be equally successful in persuading other companies to set up shop in Tennessee. But he has to do more than tout the physical and economic benefits that make Tennessee a place where new companies can prosper.
It is also Lee's responsibility to assure those companies' executives that Tennesseans are good workers, whether or not they are union members. In other words — and who knew you'd have to bring this to Lee's attention? — he has an obligation of loyalty to Tennessee workers.
Michael Loftin is a former opinion page editor for The Chattanooga Times.