How Tennessee Papers Are Helping The Anti-Union Fight

Two major Tennessee newspapers are aiding opposition to unionization efforts at a Volkswagen plant in the state by hiding the facts about union support and outside conservative influences.

This week workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee will vote on whether to become unionized under the United Automobile Workers (UAW) umbrella. A majority of the plant's workers have reportedly signed  support cards backing a union, and while Volkswagen is not opposing the effort, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and outside conservative activist groups have mobilized a campaign to prevent the vote from succeeding.   

Leading the charge is anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. The Center for Worker Freedom, a lobbying arm of Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, has rented at least 13 billboards around Chattanooga and booked commercials on local radio stations, publicly demonizing unions and the UAW.

And by omitting critical context in their coverage of the union vote, two prominent Tennessee newspapers are aiding these antiunion efforts.

This month the Chattanooga Times Free Press' devoted at least 25 posts to the looming unionization vote. But not one of those reports acknowledged that unionization enjoys majority support among the Volkswagen workers, including a February 9 article titled "UAW supporter sees victory in vote." The Times Free Press' only mention of Volkswagen worker support of unions was buried in the 13th paragraph of a broad February 2 report on unions in the South.

Similarly, The Knoxville News-Sentinel conspicuously avoided recognizing right-wing group's ties to the union opposition -- a feat, considering most of the paper's coverage this month leading up to the vote has focused on critics of the effort to unionize. In its one post acknowledging that the Center for Worker Freedom is behind recent anti-UAW ads, reprinted from the Times Free Press, the News-Sentinel chose not to include CWF's affiliation with Americans For Tax Reform or UAW's statement in response to critics, language included in the original post.

Such omissions are particularly notable given the crude nature of the conservative activist's advertisements. The Detroit Free Press wrote:

One shows Detroit's crumbling Packard Plant ruins that have been shuttered for 55 years. The copy reads: “Detroit. Brought to you by the UAW.”

Another has a red X through the second word of United Auto Workers, with a crudely lettered Obama just beneath it. Beneath it in small print it reads: “The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicans including Barack Obama.” -- (Note: Politicians is misspelled on the billboard.)

Labor experts have noted that it's unusual for a third party to be the main opposition to a private plant unionizing -- typically that role is played by the company itself, as The New York Times detailed:

'It's unusual how national groups have really gotten interested in this,' said Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University. 'It seems that both the business community and labor are seeing what's happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history.'

With Volkswagen taking a neutral stance on the effort, groups like CWF are picking up the baton for fear that if the UAW succeeds, other plants will follow suit. Thus “antiunion activists have been streaming into the city of 171,000 and organizing a campaign intent on keeping the UAW from gaining ground in the South,” Wall Street Journal explained. But when local media hide that intent, it benefits only the lobbying groups, not local workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 unionized workers had median usual weekly earnings of $950, compared to $750 for their non-unionized counterparts. And the Economic Policy Institute found that unionized workers are 53.9 percent more likely than non-unionized workers to have employer-provided pensions. Others have pointed out that “unions restore demand” to the economy by raising wages and “putting more purchasing power to work.”

Unionization even helps mitigate income inequality, especially when looking at the racial wage gap in America. Meredith Kleykamp and Jake Rosenfeld, professors of sociology at the University of Maryland and the University of Washington, completed a study which found the following:

• Had union membership rates for women remained at late-1970s levels, racial wage inequality among women in private sector jobs today would be reduced by as much as 30%.

• If rates of union membership among African American men working in the private sector were as high today as in the early 1970s, weekly wages would now be about $50 higher. For a full-time worker, that translates to an income increase of $2,600 a year. Regardless of race, all male workers have lost ground in the private sector as unions have declined.