The GOP Gets All Up in Volkswagen's Business

Republicans are going all out to prevent the United Auto Workers from organizing a VW plant in Chattanooga.

In this March 21, 2012, file photo, workers walk by the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at the plant will decide in a three-day vote Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union.

Workers walk by the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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Republicans like to say that they want to get government off the back of business. Evidently that maxim fails to apply when a business isn’t anti-union enough.

Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., are voting this week on whether or not to join the United Auto Workers. Far from attempting to prevent its workers from unionizing, Volkswagen is offering its support, saying "Volkswagen America is committed to defending our employees' legal right to make a free choice." And that seems to have driven Republicans into a fit of madness.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

For starters, state lawmakers have said that the hefty package of tax incentives they dumped into Volkswagen’s lap to entice the company to build in Tennessee could be at risk if the plant unionizes. "It has been widely reported that Volkswagen has promoted a campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns," said Republican state Sen. Bo Watson. "Should the workers choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate."

Usually I’d consider it a good thing that a state was rethinking the buckets of corporate tax incentives it doles out, since they do little to promote economic growth or job creation. But it’s anti-union animus, not economics, driving this discussion.

And it’s not just state lawmakers voicing their displeasure with Volkswagen: Conservative groups have poured into Tennessee, buying up billboards saying, among other things, that Chattanooga will turn into bankrupt Detroit if the UAW is successful.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

But the lead anti-union crusader has been U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the former mayor of Chattanooga. In addition to lambasting the UAW, Corker has said – in contradiction to the company’s public announcements – that Volkswagen will reward workers with a new product to build if they decide not to unionize. "I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga," said Corker. As Reuters reported, labor law experts believe Corker’s statement could very well be an illegal attempt to intimidate workers.

All in all, this is a lot of GOP meddling with a private business. "In my 20 years on the hill, I've never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company," said Tennessee Democratic state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh. Indeed, usually it's Republicans decrying any attempt by government to regulate the unionization process. So what on Earth is going on?

Well, a plant unionized by the UAW in Tennessee could potentially deal a blow to the right-wing narrative that anti-union companies in so-called “right to work” states are better for economic growth and job creation by providing a real-time counterpoint. If unions make inroads into foreign-owned auto plants in the South, the right-wing effort to claim that unions are something that ails business will be undermined. (Since Tennessee is right to work, employees in Chattanooga could still opt out of supporting the union even if the plant unionizes.)

[Read the U.S. News debate: Are 'Right-to-Work' Laws Good for States?]

Already, there’s much more myth than meat to the right to work movement. As the Economic Policy Institute has found, right to work laws – which undercut unions by allowing workers to free-load off union contracts – “reduce wages by $1,500 a year, for both union and nonunion workers.” They also make it less likely that workers will receive health care benefits and more likely that workplace accidents will occur. And they have no appreciable impact on job growth.

But the potential impact of a bunch of statistics pales in comparison to the potential impact of a unionized plant in the South proving to be good for workers. Corker has said that is Volkswagen workers are able to unionize, “Then it’s BMW, then it’s Mercedes, then it’s Nissan.” Exactly. And that’s why Tennessee Republicans are terrified. If Volkswagen’s experience turns out to be a positive one, then other workers will hopefully want to follow suit, which could help reverse the decades long trend of workers not receiving their fair share of increasing productivity, while calling into question GOP dogma.