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Thirteen billboards, one paint-shop worker helped defeat union at VW plant in Chattanooga

A general view of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga,Tennessee February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
A general view of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga,Tennessee February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

By Kevin Drawbaugh and Nick Carey

WASHINGTON/CHATTANOOGA (Reuters) - In the aftermath of the United Auto Workers' crushing defeat in a vote to represent workers at Volkswagen's sole U.S. factory, a key question remains unanswered: did conservative politicians and anti-union groups work together to stymie the union?

In an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board on Friday, the UAW said there was a "coordinated effort" by state politicians, anti-union groups and Tennessee's U.S. Senator Bob Corker to coerce a no vote in the February 12-14 election.

The union's NLRB filing offered scant detail to support the allegation, and Reuters interviews with more than a dozen players over the past week also provide no evidence of close contacts either between the politicians and the groups or among the groups themselves.

However, through the interviews a more complete picture emerges of how at least five national organizations and one grassroots group - all apparently operating independently - mounted a formidable threat to the UAW and helped thwart what many initially viewed as the favorite to win the election.

How that loose coalition was able to help defeat the UAW could provide a blueprint for conservative groups to oppose the union as it presses on with its campaign for representation in its first foreign-owned auto plant in the U.S. South.

Central to the anti-union effort in Chattanooga, Tennessee was an attempt to win not just the hearts and minds of auto workers but also those of their friends and families.

The UAW ran a fairly traditional campaign: meeting workers, distributing fliers and running radio ads. Anti-union forces, who were not allowed to campaign at the plant, waged war outside. Throughout Chattanooga, they held town hall meetings, launched anti-UAW websites, wrote numerous op-ed opinion pieces and radio ads, and put up billboards.

"My thinking is workers don't operate in a vacuum. They operate in a community and when the community realizes how much is at stake for everyone, then that message reaches everyone," said Matt Patterson, one of the chief architects of the winning anti-union strategy.

UNPRECEDENTED CAMPAIGN

Anti-union activists say there was no coordinated campaign to defeat the UAW and no strategizing with Republican politicians who were speaking out against the vote. But several of the high-profile conservative groups and their affiliates previously have worked together on such hot-button issues as right-to-work and the rights of public employee unions.

These included the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. All are based in or just outside of Washington, and all helped to get right-to-work legislation passed in Nevada.

"It was a fairly intensive campaign, the likes of which we haven't seen previously in an NLRB election," said John Logan, director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, of the Chattanooga effort.

As union elections go, the one in Chattanooga was unusual because the employer did not oppose the union. Union leaders, more used to facing opposition from company bosses on the shop floor, appear to have been caught off-guard by their opponents' strategy to take their campaign from the factory to the streets of Chattanooga.

"The ferocity of outside political and financial forces was unprecedented," said AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka at his union's winter meeting this week in Houston. Trumka described the opposition's campaign in Chattanooga as "an experiment by forces of right-wing zealotry."

Conservative Republicans, including Tennessee's governor, spoke out strongly against the UAW in the final days of the election campaign. Among the most vocal critics of the union was Senator Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga who helped bring the plant to his city in 2008.

Some conservative leaders acknowledge that defeating the UAW in Chattanooga was crucial to their broader battle-plan to keep organized labor from making inroads in southern states.

"GATEWAY TO THE SOUTH"

Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who heads the influential Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, described the UAW vote at Volkswagen as "step one" in a union march on the south. "They get this (plant), then they start moving toward the other large companies ... This is the gateway to the South, and by that I mean all the right-to-work, not heavily unionized states."

Norquist said the strategy of the Center for Worker Freedom, an affiliate of his Washington group, was to focus on the community and not just the workers at the plant. Volkswagen had barred anti-union groups from campaigning on company premises.

The Center for Worker Freedom bought up every available billboard it could find in town - 13 in all, he said.

"The various billboards weren't just to make sure that everyone driving to the plant would see them but also so that everybody in town would see them," said Norquist.

One billboard linked the UAW to Democratic President Barack Obama, whose national approval ratings are dismally low, and another to the demise of auto hub Detroit, which filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history last July.

While the UAW has focused much of its post-election ire on Corker, anti-union activists say a key player in their effort in Chattanooga was Patterson, a little-known Norquist lieutenant who heads the Center for Worker Freedom.

Patterson began laying the anti-union groundwork in Chattanooga last spring, while still working for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He began writing a series of opinion pieces for newspapers and helped organize local events.

"I thought if the UAW was going to have a victory in the South, then this was going to be the place where they had the best chance," Patterson said in an interview.

Patterson was one of the featured speakers at an anti-union town hall last July in Chattanooga. The event was organized by Mark West, head of the Chattanooga Tea Party, and his neighbor Don Jackson, former head of VW's Chattanooga plant.

Anti-union activists deny coordinating their efforts. But West and Jackson said Patterson shared information, including newspaper articles and opinion pieces, with Mike Burton, 56, a paint shop worker at the VW plant who last summer began organizing anti-UAW workers in Chattanooga and later formed a group called Southern Momentum.

Burton, who became a poster boy for the anti-union movement, raised more than $100,000, mainly from workers and local citizens, according to Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney retained by Southern Momentum.

Some of the money was used to create a website, www.no2uaw.org, develop a YouTube video and print anti-UAW fliers.

The Washington-based National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation sent two of its lawyers to Chattanooga to provide free legal advice to VW workers and wrote up anti-union press releases, according to NRWLDF spokesman Patrick Semmens.

In January, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a Nashville-based anti-union group hosted an "educational event" for about 75 community leaders at a Chattanooga hotel. It amplified its anti-union message through social media and local newspapers.

Beacon president and CEO Justin Owen said if it hadn't been for the cumulative efforts of grass-roots groups and national groups, "the result could have been very different."

Norquist, Patterson and other conservative activists said they plan to take the anti-union battle to other southern states and manufacturers, including a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the UAW has had an active organizing effort for more than a year.

"This might become more a norm in organizing in the South, with these groups getting involved in a similar way" in other states and union elections, said labor expert Logan.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Chattanooga, Amanda Becker in Washington and Paul Lienert in Detroit; Writing by Paul Lienert, editing by Ross Colvin)

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