If you ask Republicans about their antipathy toward unions, they'll say that letting workers bargain collectively reduces a company's ability to act efficiently in the marketplace. If you knew anything about business, the market advocates will patiently explain, you'd understand that unions, with all their rules and conditions and strike threats, only make it harder for the company to make its products. Let management make decisions about things like wages and working conditions, and the result will be higher profits and more jobs, which will benefit everyone. In almost all cases, the corporation agrees; after all, union workers always earn better wages than their non-union counterparts, and they give power to the employees, which no CEO wants.
What most people probably don't realize is that this inherently hostile relationship between management and unions isn't something that's inherent in capitalism. In fact, in many places where there are capitalists making lots of money, corporations work—now hold on here while I blow your mind—cooperatively with unions. One of those places is Germany, and one of the biggest German companies, Volkswagen, is right now embroiled in a union election in Tennessee that has turned into a bizarre spectacle that is showing the true colors of American conservatism. If you thought conservative were just laissez faire capitalists, seeking freedom for businesses to create prosperity, you're dead wrong. What they actually want is something much uglier.
On Monday, our own Harold Meyerson explained the context and history driving this election, but the short version is that in its Chattanooga plant, Volkswagen wants to create a "works council" of the kind that companies in Germany use, which is a system where management and workers come together to set policies, plan strategy, and solve problems. The details of U.S. labor law require a union if such a council is going to be created, which is one reason VW has seemed supportive of the United Auto Workers organizing the plant. Although VW hasn't come out and said they support the union, the signals they've sent strongly suggest that they do. "Our works councils are key to our success and productivity," said the VW executive who runs the Chattanooga plant.
So faced with a union-friendly corporation, what have Republicans in the state done? One might expect them to say, "Every company should have the freedom to decide how to deal with its own workers; we may not be big fans of unions, but that freedom is what capitalism is all about," or something like that. But no. The Republican governor and state legislators have begun issuing threats that there won't be any future tax incentives for the company if the union wins the election. In other words, tax incentives are vital to bring jobs to the state—but if they're union jobs, we don't want them. We'd rather see our constituents unemployed than see them get jobs with union representation. So what you now have is Republicans fighting against a corporation to try to impose their vision of management-labor relations, one the corporation doesn't want.
Then yesterday, Republican Sen. Bob Corker claimed, "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." There are two things to understand about Corker's statement. First, it doesn't pass the smell test: the Chattanooga plant is the only Volkswagen factory in the world that doesn't have a union, and the company has already made its good relationship with unions in general, and its desire for a works council there in particular, quite clear. And second, that kind of blatant attempt to intimidate workers into voting against the union when the election is going on is probably illegal, and could result in the election being halted and rescheduled.
What this issue has revealed is that while one might have thought that as far as conservatives are concerned, the creation of workplaces in which employees are given low wages and few benefits, and generally treated like crap, was merely a means to an end, the end being corporate profits and maximum freedom for business owners. But what we're now seeing is that a powerless and beaten-down workforce isn't a means to a larger end, and it isn't a byproduct. It is the end in itself. It's the goal. Here you have a highly profitable company that wants to have a more cooperative relationship with its workers, and obviously sees a union as a path to that relationship, because they know that they can work that way with unions, since they do it already all over the world. But the Republican politicians don't care about what the corporation wants. They are so venomously opposed to collective bargaining that they'll toss aside all their supposed ideals about economic liberty in a heartbeat.
One of the absurd arguments they've made is that other companies, like suppliers, won't want to come to Tennessee if there's a unionized auto plant there, as though it were some kind of infection others would fear they might catch. That's ridiculous, of course—if you have a company that makes car parts, and VW wants to buy thousands and thousands of your parts, you're damn sure going to set up shop next to their factory if that's the best way to make money. What Republicans are really afraid of is that the union will come in to the Chattanooga plant and things will work well. If that happened, the rationale for the race to the bottom would be severely undermined. And the idea that corporations can do well by treating their employees like partners and not like enemies might indeed spread.