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When a Senator Turns Anti-Union Goon: A Labor Defeat Reverberates Across the South

| February 22, 2014

A clockwork Corker.

A clockwork Corker.

In one of the more memorable scenes from the movie “Goodfellas,” mobster Henry Hill and his date are escorted like royalty to a front table at the famed Copacabana nightclub. “What do you do?” asks the awestruck young lady. “I’m in construction,” he replies. Taking Hill’s hands, she says, “They don’t feel like you’re in construction.” Without missing a beat, Hill says, “I’m a union delegate.”

The scene is priceless for all sorts of moviemaking reasons, but the dialogue works so flawlessly because Hill’s explanation for his baby-soft hands plays right into every stereotype of the overpaid, featherbedding union rep. Say the word “union,” and the average person is likely to respond with references to Jimmy Hoffa being buried in the end zone at Giants Stadium, not Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, Cesar Chavez or even Norma Rae.

Union membership, as a percentage of the overall workforce, is at its lowest level in a century, and that is a shame, not only because the principle of unionism is so important to our nation’s history, but also because it is ultimately the only realistic solution to the descent of the middle class into the ranks of the working poor.

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The numbers are very clear: As union membership has steadily declined, income disparity between the top 10 percent of wage earners and the rest of the U.S. has widened dramatically.

Before you accuse me of rank naïveté, I’ve lived the debate over unions from both sides. As a young journalist in the 1970s and early ’80s I was a member of the Newspaper Guild, and worked for a company whose enviable benefits came not from the generosity of the corporate heart, but rather from years of tough negotiations. Later on, as management, I witnessed first-hand how unions can be pigheaded and obstructionist, fighting innovations needed to keep companies competitive in a changing world.

And while it is a glib distortion of history to blame Detroit’s downfall on the United Autoworkers, the union is as culpable as the management of GM, Ford and Chrysler in saddling the domestic auto industry with unsustainable pension and healthcare obligations.

To a great extent the union rank and file have been victims of their own leadership—too often corrupt, intransigent, uninformed and uncaring. But at the end of the day, who is left to fight for people who want only to make enough money to pay their bills and set their children on a path to a better life?

Certainly not Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker. He was positively giddy over the UAW’s failure this month to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. But his role in the narrow defeat was ugly and, quite possibly, illegal. Under the pretext of making certain that Tennessee remains business-friendly, Corker claimed that a victory over the UAW would encourage Volkswagen to move forward with plans to build an SUV in the state. The remark, on the first of three days of voting, was an undisguised threat to the rank and file, and, as it turns out, was a lie.

If you haven’t been following this story closely, VW supported the UAW’s bid, explaining that with a union in place the plant could implement a German-style works council in Chattanooga. A critical component of labor-management relations in Germany, works councils are credited with enhancing productivity and quality at German factories, while providing a platform for worker input and grievances. With the UAW’s defeat at VW, a company labor spokesman said, VW would be less likely to build more plants in the mostly non-union South.

The vote in Tennessee affected a relatively small number of workers, but it was one more assault on workers by Republicans who oppose hikes in the minimum wage, as well as any attempts by low-wage workers to organize and fight for a better standard of living.

While Corker set about threatening the workers, Tennessee State Sen. Bo Watson unabashedly threatened VW. “Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers,” he said at a press conference, “then I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”


Anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist also waded into the battle of Chattanooga, conflating union membership with “big government.” Some elderly Tennesseans might recall that the last time big government came to their state it was called the Tennessee Valley Authority, and it brought electricity and running water to desperately poor rural residents of Tennessee and other southern states.

So, why should we care about the travails of labor unions in our country? Because, with no one in Washington able to effectively represent workers nationwide, unions are the only ones left to fight for a living wage.

It was none other than that evil genius Henry Ford who understood that if you mass produce a product, you need to pay your workers enough so that they can afford to buy that product. Ford rocked the corporate world by paying his workers the then-unheard-of sum of $5 a day. A century later, more and more working folks find themselves unable to afford the goods and services peddled by America’s corporations—and how long can our economic system sustain that frightening imbalance?

Of course, Henry Ford also gave the union movement a big boost by unleashing his hired goons on workers in 1932. It will be interesting to see whether the threats and intimidation of today, launched by a U.S. Senator, among others, have a similar outcome.

Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.

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27 Responses for “When a Senator Turns Anti-Union Goon: A Labor Defeat Reverberates Across the South”

  1. RAKA says:

    MR. ROBINSON STATES THE OBVIOUS . . . .UNION WORKERS HAVE BEEN THE CORE OF OUR MIDDLE CLASS. THE CORRUPTION OF SOME LABOR UNION OFFICERS IS NO
    MORE DEPLORABLE THAN THAT OF CORPORATION AND GOVERNMENT OFFICALS. BUT WE MUST START OVER WITH UNION ACTIVITY OR WE WILL NEVER LEAVE OUR PRESENT 3RD WORLD ECONOMIC STATUS.

  2. dlf says:

    Mr. Robinson : Maybe next week you can inform us about the reasons the UAW failed to organize the Nissan plant in Smyrna Tennessee ,in 1983. I would like to hear your take on why the UAW did not even hold a vote to organize the Honda plant in Marysville Ohio. What Republican can you blame for these failures.The fact is all of the employment growth in the auto industry, since 1980 has been in nonunion shops. What Republican can you blame for the UAW membership dropping to fewer than 400,000. when in 1979 the membership was 1.5 million. I will look forward to see which Republican was the cause of this drop in membership. maybe we would be better served if the press spent less time “googling” movie lines and more time reporting the WHOLE story.

  3. A.S.F. says:

    With no one to represent the interests of the little guy, the big guy runs amok. When the unions became “the big guy”, they started running amok as well. But there has to be some entity that will stand up for the vital interest and rights of workers. This is a wake-up call to the unions to clean up their acts and gain back the confidence of the people they represent. It should also serve as a wake-up call to us simple folk who are only too vulnerable to the lies and distortions peddled by greedy third parties who use our own anxieties, prejudices and insecurities as leverage to advance their own agendas at great cost to our own. They are often adept at hiding their true intentions until it is too late for us to recover what has been taken from us.

  4. Steve D says:

    [Comment disallowed. Insulting.–FL]

  5. rickg says:

    Good piece Steve. Enjoyed it.

  6. karma says:

    I am sure the Chinese would be willing to make VW’s for less. Jeep has decided to send their work there. Was not that long ago when NLRB tried to bully Boeing for threatening to move to South Carolina.
    BMW,Toyota,KIA,Volkswagen and Hyundai all have plants in the South. Do you think it was because of the nice weather? Unions had their day, with globalization so prominent in every aspect of manufacturing we need to competitive. This may be the reason unions are decreasing.
    Yes, those evil Republicans are gong hold back that 2% of Americans that get paid minimum wage. I would be willing to bet most every worker at those auto plants in the South makes MORE than minimum wage. Most McDonald workers make more than minimum wage after 90 days. Even the CBO says this would cause more job loss.

  7. PCresident says:

    The question to ask is this: If the employer/management is treating their employees fairly with safety, wages, and comparable industry benefits why would management worry about the employees becoming unionized?

    If they are not doing anything wrong why are they in such fear? Because the consequence is having organized skilled workers who are trained to industry standards? Does not seem like a bad idea seeing how the individual safety of cars is paramount! Our family members, our most prized possessions, our children, ride in these cars daily. Are you okay with unskilled labor, untrained employees assembling these vehicles? Obviously, German engineering far exceeds anything in USA, and the German’s certainly are not okay with the notion of unskilled labor assembling one of most safety conscious vehicle, the SUV.

    There are two types of unions in the United States, public and private. Public including government workers, Police officers, correction officers, firefighters & emergency medical technicians, air traffic controllers, etc… Private including the UAW, MLBPA, NFLPA, the newspaper and actor’s guilds, IBEW, etc… Some states in the United States allow the members of the collective bargaining unit to refrain from membership of the union, while other states require all employees to pay union dues.

    Is it socially acceptable in any state in the United States to connect your house’s electrical supply into your neighbor’s house, running your house off of your neighbor’s power bill? No. No, this is theft of utilities and is against the law in all fifty states. The double standard we allow in Florida and other “right to work” states should be illegal. The union negotiates contracts for the entire collective bargaining unit, the pay, benefits, and safety standards negotiated are enjoyed by all regardless of their membership status with the union, rather the only thing that matters to these people is their job title just so happens to be classified into the bargaining unit. When these employees refrain to participate in the union they are stealing the proverbial utilities from their neighbors; legally, I might add.

    The one thing history has proven time and time again, solidarity is key to any success. A house divided will fail. So when employees refrain from participation in the union it gives management the upper hand; divide and conquer. When you get ratification votes for unionization and they fail, it is obvious management divided, and conquered. Management uses unethical scare tactics and immoral ideations that would typically render the business worthless if the employees would stand together and force management’s hand by the propaganda they spew.

    Palm Coast is a good example, do the citizens of Palm Coast know that the firefighters in Palm Coast have the lowest retirement in the state of Florida for firefighters and Police officers (Foster & Foster 2010 study of 175 municipal retirement plans). (Note the 175 is the tax identification, like a 401k, not 175 departments.) Out of 137 municipal fire departments in the State of Florida, Palm Coast was 137 with a 1.6% multiplier. 3% being the state medium and department number 136 had a 2.4% and this department was a combination department (offered public safety and fire together). Who in their right mind would beg for a 65 yr old firefighter to be tasked with removing your incapacitated body from a fire? Would you want the front line of our military infantry division to have a medium age of 50? Not if you want to win a war. So putting a medium age of 60 for frontline firefighters too would not be such a good idea ( remember there is only one chief position, and then everyone else is going to be putting on bunker gear)! Oh to boot, the vast majority of firefighter line of duty deaths occurring in fire suppression are the age of 45 yrs old and older (greater than 90%). So the City of Palm Coast has the smartest actuaries in the United States so they minimize the retirement pay out and a Fire Chief, City Council members, and City Manager who could careless about their rank-and-file fireman. Oh by the way, the Chief who is a desk jockey, has a 3% FRS (Florida Retirement System) multiplier which differs from what the firefighter’s who actually risk their hide have for retirement.

    The point of this is without a union, this discrepancy will never be amended. The City Council so out of touch with their own toes does not even know they have their hardworking fireman working for such a sham. The City Manager so enthralled with himself doesn’t care if it does not affect the force field he believes exists around him. I would truly be embarrassed, just flat out embarrassed to know my employees are dead last, dead last in the state of Florida.

    The citizens should not be willing to accept this for our fireman. And they (elected officials) want to bring in a paid police force and expose them to this mentality! They are okay with spending millions on worthless land then rectify fireman’s lives. They serve and protect, the minimum we could do as citizens is give them what they deserve. You would think red light camera money would be directed to fix this! Maybe Pierre could run a story to force their hand!

  8. BIG JOHN says:

    I wish more people would understand that the labor movement is based on the principle that the people have the right to organize into groups that will protect them from being at a disadvantage when dealing with conditions of employment at the hands of the wealthy class of men who control corporations, banking, politics, and government. Who will represent the workers? The politicians? Americans have a short memory when it comes to our own history. The degradation of the middle-class will only weaken our nation to the point where we will all be reduced to servitude and penury. You could look it up!

  9. NortonSmitty says:

    Watch how well Senator Coker gets paid for his efforts, in campaign contributions, speaking fees and the sudden worth of his family as invaluable consultants and speakers..
    It always angers me after spending hours a day reviewing the internet and seeking out the machinations of our Betters to convince us of the evils of collective bargaining. As well as how hypnotically all our neighbors seem to swallow this against their experiences in the real world.. And somehow sonorously buy outright the myth of the obvious love the 1% has for it’s worker drones. The proles that grind their noses for 62 years to provide Ferrari’s for their rulers precious children while their own learn to live with less, much less, than they and their parents had. Would you like to know why? This explains it about as well as anything: http://www.alternet.org/economy/meet-billionaires-using-their-immense-wealth-make-life-miserable-ordinary-americans

    Enjoy. And if it gets you pissed off, please consider doing something to fight it.

  10. Roy Ostapko says:

    The only answer for the American worker is GOOD and STRONG Unions…

    You are so right Steve when you say “who is left to fight for people who want only to make enough money to pay their bills and set their children on a path to a better life?”

    CNN ? NOPE
    Fox News NOPE
    Republicans NOPE
    Democrats NOPE

    UNION….YES

    Too many are asleep, do not care enough….or of course are just too damn greedy.

    • dlf says:

      They did a great job fighting for the common man and his job in the auto industry or a greater job in the steel industry. Have you seen pictures of Detroit or Pittsburg recently. Look at what a great job the unions did for the city workers in Detroit, they are looking at a 30-45% reduction in their retirement. The greedy leaders of the unions still have their jobs and secure retirement, shows you the greed is wide spread, King still has his cushy high paying job, even after UAW membership has dropped from 1.5 million to about 450,000.

      • PCresident says:

        The last time I checked the unions in Detriot did not tell the officials to borrow against the principles of the retirement accounts for pet projects. For some reason everyone forgets this aspect of why Detriot is in the condition they are; they are bankrupt. You people for get about why this has started and it was not from the “unions” it is from horrible decisions made by the executives borrowing against principles expecting interest bearing accounts to pay for their bad decision making. This is just like a consumer making bad decisions on subprime mortgages thinking they will flip the investment on an ARM and the market crashing. Did the unions cause this mess too? No, it was again bad financial decision making by people who thought they were smart.

  11. I/M/O says:

    How damaged are the unions in this nation?

    The Steel workers Union now wants to unionize college students.

    You call that desperation.

  12. m&m says:

    All civil employees should not be allowed to organize..

  13. fruitcake says:

    Bunch of sour grapes…the rank and file voted the union down…end of conversation.

  14. justwondering says:

    I spent 15 years working “with” unions in the trucking industry.
    The union way was to get more people to do less work.
    That resulted in struggling companies, many of whom went out of business in part because of high labor costs.
    The corruption was unspeakable. No show and no work shop stewards were the rule. Union members who favored out of power union leaders were beaten by their union “brothers.”
    As to the author’s statement : “Because, with no one in Washington able to effectively represent workers nationwide, unions are the only ones left to fight for a living wage.”
    How can that be with all the government bureaucrats who are paid with our tax dollars to protect workers?

  15. Rich says:

    People like Sen. Corker subscribe to the thought that if you tell a lie enough times then people will believe it as truth. Unions gave us the 40 our work week, holidays with pay vacation time and forced safe working conditions for everyone. Unions are a workers friend, not their enemy.

  16. Davis says:

    The Union does not inspire employees to perform, it protects the ones who don’t.

    • A.S.F. says:

      Before unions existed men, women and children worked ungodly hours for pitiful sums until they literally dropped dead on behalf of wealthy individuals who made obscene fortunes and felt little or no sense of responsibility for the drones that made those fortunes possible. Unions protect workers from unfair labor practices. We should remember our history instead of re-inventing it in our preferred image.

  17. confidential says:

    Since the conservatives started around 2000 with union bashings shows so well in the pathetic status of our decrepit national economy! Greed, greed and more greed of 1%, even stealing our hard earned taxes.

  18. A.S.F. says:

    I get the feeling that a lot of Conservatives in Florida subscribe to the philosophy of ” I got mine, screw you.

  19. confidential says:

    Without unions we go back to slavery, feudalism and child labor allover again!
    Way things are now, if we do not vote for change in 2014 our middle class will further endure more financial distress and our jobs will not be brought back. Greed will prevail on the backs of the poor. What ever happened to the land of opportunity for all and not only for the one percent?

  20. truth monitor says:

    I was intimidated to join a hospital union. The representative told me indirectly that we can’t help you if your car will suffer damage in the parking lot..I just came back from Viet Nam and she picked on the wrong person to use that language. I told her if anything happens to any of my property she won’t be able to use stumps to do her job. Of course nothing ever happened. The Union leadership will use pressure to make you join. With every new member more money to the union organizers and leadership. Remember the Teamsters Pension Fund and the Mafia who used the Fund as their own ATM. If there was a strike you get pennies but the higher ups can still drive their free union car’s and live high on the hog while you starve. There are better methods than an Union.

  21. OMG says:

    Let me tell you, I am from a strong union area. They did nothing to protect the workers when they started closing plants. And do you want to know why.. Union members would go in trashed and sleep it off at work while making close to $50.00 /+/- and hour when you calculate Overtime and their benefits. And then they blamed management for closing the plant.. GET REAL!!

    Management could not fire them. My Grandfather brought Unions into my home town. My father was a union member. So I am well aware of what unions are and can do. Union Bosses now are just stealing from the rank and file…

    They have outlived their usefulness!

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