One of the less-noted legacies of the Tea Party era in American politics is the transformation it has wrought on the way we view mainstream, died-in-the-wool, pro-business conservatives. So eager are Washington pundits for glimmers of rationality on the right that politicians who not that long ago would’ve been regarded as bedrock conservatives have acquired, by contrast to the likes of Ted Cruz, a halo of benign moderation. Take, for instance, the special election for Mobile, Ala.’s congressional seat last fall—so far to the right was one contender for the seat (he warned of “homosexuals pretending like they’re married” and the “end of a Western Christian empire”) that the alternative backed by the Chamber of Commerce and countless big corporations was hailed as a sort of Southern Nelson Rockefeller, never mind that he also had the enthusiastic backing of the NRA, pro-life groups and a PAC that is a chief backer of Cruz.
Or take Bob Corker. The Tennessee senator is a classic pro-business Southern conservative, who made a fortune in the construction and real estate industry (his company’s initial specialty was building drive-thru windows at Krystal restaurants) before becoming mayor of Chattanooga. But in recent years, Corker has taken on a patina of centrism in Washington, simply by virtue of his willingness to stand up on occasion to the likes of Cruz when they have threatened to take the GOP caucus in the Senate completely off the rails. “Tennessee’s junior senator rises as go-to deal maker,” enthused a 2013 USA Today headline.
Amid this fog of relativism comes the highly clarifying moment of the United Auto Workers’ failed attempt to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. There are many plausible explanations for the UAW’s narrow defeat, laid out in turn by, among others, Mike Elk, Rich Yeselson, Harold Meyerson and Erik Loomis. Perhaps the UAW was undercut by its neutrality agreement with VW, which gained its organizers access to the plant but prevented them from visiting workers at their homes and, by pledging restraint in wage demands, left workers uncertain just what material improvement they could expect from joining the union. Perhaps VW was just too benevolent – or non-malevolent—an employer to inspire much oppositional solidarity among workers. Or perhaps the mostly white, mostly male Southern workforce at the plant was just too culturally resistant to the whole idea of unionization—not for nothing did the billboards and flyers passed out by anti-union agitators link the UAW to Barack Obama and dystopian images of bankrupt, post-white flight Detroit. (Note that Eastern Tennessee is very dark on this map showing the parts of the country where Obama performed less well in 2008, while winning the country as a whole, than loser John Kerry had performed in 2004).
But the postmortems agree on this: much credit for the UAW’s defeat goes to Bob Corker and other Republican politicians in Tennessee who took the lead in making the case against the UAW even as the employer, VW, signaled that it would be amenable to unionization, and who thereby struck a bigger blow against liberalism than Cruz or any Tea Partier could claim to have done in recent years. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam warned that auto-parts suppliers would be less likely to settle in Chattanooga if VW went union and state senator Bo Watson warned of the legislature stripping the plant of its tax incentives. By far the most influential, though, was Corker's declaration just days before the election, following weeks of outspoken comments against the UAW, that he had it on good authority that VW would put a second assembly line that Chattanooga is in the running for in Mexico instead if the Tennessee plant went union. “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,” he said.*
It is hard to overstate how remarkable an intervention this was: a United States senator going out of his way to quash a union election back home with an insinuation that was highly dubious, given VW’s seemingly sincere openness to a union at the Chattanooga plant, but that nonetheless took on an air of authority given its high-placed source. Plenty of Democratic congressmen in Washington are rhetorically pro-union, but they would need take a far more active role to come close to matching Corker’s influence here—perhaps Sherrod Brown and his security detail could start paying house visits alongside Teamsters during their next organizing drive in Ohio?
Regardless, that Corker should put himself out there as brazenly as he did in this instance should dispel any question of what the stakes were in this election. Liberals worried about income inequality know that the gaps opening in our society have expanded in striking correlation with declining rates of unionization, and that income inequality is lower, and manufacturing more robust, in countries such as Germany that feature higher rates of unionization and employer-worker cooperation such as the "works council" that unionization would have brought to the Chattanooga plant. Conservatives seeking to guard business interests are no less aware of how much the corporate bottom line has benefited from diminished bargaining power on the part of employees, which is why the Wall Street Journal's victory-lap editorial declared that "the last thing the U.S. economy needs is to import European labor practices." The Chattanooga election involved a mere 1,500 workers, but the momentum boost of a UAW victory in the South would’ve been incalculable and would have fed into planned efforts at the Mercedes plant in Alabama and the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn.
Bob Corker knew this, which is why, for all this aura as a reasonable, New South, Chamber of Commerce Republican (or rather, because of his identity as a New South Chamber of Commerce Republican, the essence of which this episode lays bare), he decided it was time to stand abreast the union hall door. Right-to-work now, right-to-work tomorrow, right-to-work forever.
*This article initially stated that Corker's comment came just days before the election. In fact, it came on the first of the three days of voting, leaving the union even less time to respond to it. The article also attributed to Corker a comment about the unionization push being "un-American." That comment was made by Bo Watson, the Tennessee state senator.