Southern governors band together to attack Auto Workers
UAW President Shawn Fain speaks to the media after visiting the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. Workers at the Tennessee plant are scheduled to finish voting Friday on whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union. | Olivia Ross/AP

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—Faced with what they call a threat to Southern jobs and “the values we live by,” six white Republican Southern governors banded together to blast and condemn the Auto Workers’ organizing drive in the Deep South—specifically the unionization vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Govs. Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, and Greg Abbott of Texas issued their condemnation on the eve of the Volkswagen plant’s three-day vote, which concludes April 19. The results are coming too late to be reported in this edition of People’s World.

The governors’ attacks against the Auto Workers run the gamut from racial dog whistles to the Red Menace: They charge that  “democratic socialists” lead the UAW. They allege the union leaders are more interested in re-electing Democratic President Joe Biden than in standing up for workers. White nationalists of the South hate Biden. Those whites and the corporate class back the six Republican governors.

The Volkswagen vote spearheads the UAW’s new $40 million two-year plan to break the foreign auto firms’ stranglehold on workers in the union-hostile South. More than half of the VW workers signed union election authorization cards for a National Labor Relations Board-run vote, including 30% who signed in the first two weeks of organizing, in December.

The VW vote will be quickly followed by a UAW union recognition vote at the Mercedes-Benz plant—the firm’s largest in North America—in Vance, Ala. And 30% of Hyundai workers at its plant in Montgomery, Ala., have signed union election authorization cards.

The joint letter is rife with anti-union rhetoric and at least one euphemism—that “Southern values” phrase—for white supremacy. The workforces at the Southern auto plants are racially mixed. And in past campaigns that the UAW lost at the VW plant in Chattanooga, bosses and Tennessee politicians used racial code words in their arsenal of tactics to beat the union.

This joint letter from the governors reeks similarly. It accuses the UAW of being the unnamed “special interests coming into our state and threatening our jobs and the values we live by,” without, of course, offering any proof. “We do not need to pay a third party to tell us who can pick up a box or flip a switch,” the governors add, this time repeating a common corporate lie about unions.

The governors allege UAW is spreading “misinformation” and “a smear campaign” against the auto firms when the union points out that profits at the foreign-owned auto companies over the last decade actually exceeded the $250 billion the Detroit carmakers gleaned in that same era.

Lies about givebacks

And they charge that immediately after the UAW’s big wins, and its takebacks of prior givebacks to the Detroit carmakers over the last two decades, GM, Ford, and Stellantis, formerly FiatChrysler, started announcing layoffs. The governors predicted the same thing would happen in the South.

If VW had made those statements, it would be breaking U.S. labor law. The governors became its shills.

“When employees have a direct relationship with their employers, that makes for a more positive working environment. They can advocate for themselves and what is important to them without outside influence,” the governors contend. “Direct relationship,” too, is a corporate cover-up for complete capitalist control of workers’ pay, benefits, tenure, and lives. Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps had a “direct relationship” with their overseers and bosses.

The governors’ letter is also reminiscent of other tactics Southern white supremacist politicians used for decades to divide workers by race and pit white against Black, starting with the first so-called “right to work” law, in Arkansas 80 years ago.

And politicians issued a direct threat during the UAW’s prior organizing drive in Chattanooga. Both the former governor and the Republican-gerrymandered Tennessee legislature threatened to pull millions of dollars in tax breaks for expanding that VW plant if the workers voted union. The vote failed.

VW executives in Germany, which has much tougher labor law safeguards for workers, proclaimed “neutrality” in those prior UAW organizing drives, and looked on benignly as their U.S. underlings conducted vicious anti-UAW campaigns, aided by union busters.

The Black community, as well as organized labor, is aware of the corporate race-baiting to defeat unions, too. In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King pointed it out to the AFL-CIO Convention: “The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other.”

The UAW in Detroit has stayed silent through the gubernatorial onslaught, though a staffer working in the VW campaign said the governors’ accusations show they’re “running scared.”

While the governors engaged in race-baiting, fear-mongering, and division, the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the New Poor People’s Campaign, and author Jonathan Wilson Hargrove penned an op-ed in the Nashville Tennessean supporting the unionization drive.

“As preachers from the South, we are tired of politicians trying to co-opt faith with talk about ‘values’ when they do not have the facts to back up their claims,” the two wrote.

“For more than 40 years, the Southern Strategy has taught politicians to appeal to religion rather than race when rallying reactionary forces for the ‘Southern way of life.’ This has resulted in so-called ‘Christian nationalists’ waving the Bible while they deny the results of democratic elections. But we also hear echoes of this distorted religious language when read the governors’ assertion that unions threaten the ‘values we live by.’

“The truth is that workers are building power in the South and politicians who’ve made immoral partnerships with corporate interests are feeling the heat. It’s past time for all God’s people to stand up for living wages and union rights.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.