Fox News pushed aside economic reality and Volkswagen's stated position surrounding unionization effort at a Tennessee plant, instead warning that a unionization push may generate too many benefits for workers and hurt the carmaker.
Workers at a Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee are voting this week on whether to unionize with the United Auto Workers (UAW). A final vote on the move is scheduled to take place by February 14, and in advance of the decision, outside conservative activist groups have mobilized a campaign to halt the unionization effort, succeeding in skewing local coverage of the issue.
Now Fox News is joining the union opposition effort. The February 13 edition of Fox & Friends stoked fears that unionization could hurt the U.S. economy and make manufacturing prohibitively expensive, something that Fox Business host Stuart Varney called "a very big issue":
PETER JOHNSON, JR.: What does this sound in terms of the economy, in terms of right to work, in terms of our ability in this country to manufacture in a way that's not too expensive?
VARNEY: Oh, it's a very big issue.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Tell us about that.
VARNEY: A very, very big issue. Foreign carmakers have, I think, 11 plants in more than a dozen states in America. They're nonunion, very successful automobile producers. Now, if the union comes into Volkswagen, do they now have union rules, work rules? Which really hurts the ability of a carmaker to move quickly with a new product. What about wage levels? What about benefits? Do those always go up because of unionization?
Varney purports to be concerned with economic growth and employer's rights, but it is at the expense of the facts.
The reality is that Volkswagen is not opposing the unionization effort in Tennessee.
From the February 12 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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A misleading op-ed in Chattanooga's Times Free Press, co-written by a Koch and ALEC ally, falsely claimed creating a union in a local Volkswagen plant would negatively impact the state economy and plant relations, despite evidence to the contrary.
The February 12 op-ed co-authored by Justin Owen of the Koch-tied Beacon Center and anti-union UAW member Terry Bowman misleadingly accused unions of threatening jobs and economic opportunity in the state and claimed workers could have an equal voice in plant decisions without a union:
When all is said and done, the UAW is a hyper-political organization with perspectives and policies contrary to those of many of the workers it claims to represent. The union has a history of using workers' dues to influence elections at all levels of government. Those policies have failed in Detroit and do not fit in a state like Tennessee that is trying to create automotive jobs and economic opportunity. And while many of Tennessee's auto workers have already expressed their opposition to the UAW, the battle is far from over.
Workers should absolutely have the opportunity to freely associate with each other and explore with their respective employers ways to improve their workplace and the quality of the products they produce. At the same time, Volkswagen can allow this to happen by using current, nonunion workers, instead of insisting that only a UAW-represented plant can enter into a works council agreement.
The anti-union reaction from Owen is no surprise as his organization, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is a registered member of the State Policy Network (SPN). According to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy, the SPN and its member organizations "are major drivers of the right-wing" agenda:
Although many of SPN's member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, our in-depth investigation reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.
Owen's co-author, Terry Bowman, is a UAW member and founder of the Union Conservatives, a group dedicated to advancing right-to-work laws that weaken unions. As a due-paying member, Bowman is often relied upon by conservative media outlets to fabricate union member dissatisfaction.
The Wall Street Journal renewed its opposition to all things union in a recent editorial, complaining about a proposed rule change that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hopes will make union elections more efficient.
On February 5, the NLRB announced a series of proposed rule changes that streamlines labor organizing, including a new rule that could eliminate long delays that hinder employees' ability to vote up or down on union representation.
In a February 10 editorial, the WSJ framed the new rules as an attack on employers, arguing that a change in election timing could "unbalance" employers' First Amendment rights. This is far from the first time the WSJ has taken an unfair dig at unions and their members, but this time the editorial board's defense of an employer's right to badmouth unions during an election managed to completely ignore how unfair anti-union sentiment has flourished under the old system.
The WSJ also mischaracterized the NLRB's previous attempt to change the rules in 2011 as "failed," even though it later admits that the court that heard the case did not overturn the rule on substantive grounds, but rather because of procedural concerns. Specifically, because the Republican appointee to the NLRB in 2011 made good on his threat to "block" the rule by refusing to vote, the court ruled he had successfully denied the board of its required quorum.
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." -- workerfreedom.org. (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.
The Wall Street Journal took to its editorial pages to plead with ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to overturn decades of labor law precedent -- including his own opinion -- that would greatly hinder public-employee unions' ability to advocate for their members.
The Supreme Court has long held that employees in unionized workplaces are required to pay dues even if they're not members, as long as their dues don't go toward the political activity of the union, which would be a violation of non-members' First Amendment rights. Requiring dues payments from non-members helps prevent a "free rider" problem where non-unionized workers receive the significant benefits of unionization without having to pay for it.
On January 21, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Harris v. Quinn, a case that could allow home-care workers who voted against unionization to refuse to pay dues. These workers, whom the state of Illinois recognizes as public employees because they're paid with Medicaid funds, argue that the union's efforts to raise wages constitute political activity.
Lawyers for the union and for Illinois counter that unionization has reduced turnover for home-care workers, has nearly doubled wages for those workers, and has saved the state around $632 million. It should be noted that the plaintiffs in this case, despite opposing the union, still accepted the wage increase, all while bringing a lawsuit that has national implications for the labor movement. As NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reported, a finding for the plaintiffs "could drive a stake through the heart of public employee unions" because unions will still be required by law to represent and advocate for non-members even if they refuse to pay dues.
But the WSJ, never one to pass up an opportunity to attack unions, is predictably pro-plaintiff when it comes to Harris. The editorial board, presumably taking advantage of the fact that the WSJ is one of just two newspapers Scalia reads, pleaded with him (or his clerks) to "restore a first constitutional principle" by finding that paying union dues violates the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights -- something that Scalia has previously declined to do.
The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown that misleadingly accused teacher unions of "making it more difficult to protect children from molesters" and failed to disclose that Brown's husband is a board member of an anti-teacher union organization.
The Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act of 2013 from Rep. George Miller (D-CA) passed in the House of Representatives in October 2013. Politico reported that the bill will "require school employees, applicants and contractors to pass a comprehensive background check that includes a check of the FBI fingerprint database, standardizing national background check policy. It would forbid school districts from knowingly transferring employees who have engaged in sexual misconduct, and it would allow districts to share background check information."
In a January 17, op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Brown dismissed the objections of teacher unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) to the bill as "unconvincing," claiming the organizations' stance is "making it more difficult to protect children from molesters."
Campbell recounted two "horror stories" of sexual misconduct by teachers to paint the legitimate concerns of the AFT and NEA regarding the bill as an attempt by teacher unions to protect sexual predators:
These are sensible measures that are overdue. Yet the two most powerful teachers unions in the country have voiced objections to the bill. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers complained about the bill before it passed the House. The NEA claimed in a letter to House members that background checks "often have a huge, racially disparate impact." Randi Weingarten, the AFT chief, warned of inaccuracies in the FBI database and cautioned that teachers would be inconvenienced by potentially long screening delays.
This response is unconvincing. Twenty-five states already use FBI searches in teacher hiring. More important, the bill includes an appeals provision for anyone who believes the results of background checks are mistaken.
However, the AFT, an organization that represents over 1.5 million teachers, does not oppose the bill. In an open letter to the House of Representatives the organization affirmed support for the bill while also addressing legitimate concerns and suggestions for "improving and strengthening the bill."
AFT specifically addressed parts of the bill that they believe need further consideration and deliberation including the possibility that imposing a national protocol could create inefficient duplication processes in states with already rigorous procedures, and that the data in FBI records used for background checks are often incomplete or inaccurate. AFT say they would also like the bill to consider how individuals will be burdened with addressing inaccurate data, and to address the possibility that this bill may cause serious backlogs and delay in the hiring process.
The NEA offered their view "that criminal background checks often have a huge, racially disparate impact. In addition, we are concerned that H.R. 2083, while well intentioned, may run counter to existing state laws requiring background checks." Although background checks have a history of acting as a racially discriminatory tool for companies, Campbell dismissed these points as "unconvincing."
In addition, WSJ did not disclose Brown's possible conflict of interest in writing about teachers' unions - her husband, Dan Senor, sits on the board of StudentFirstNY, an organization that actively opposes teachers' unions.
The WSJ has a habit of failing to disclose their contributor's conflicts of interest when it comes to conservative policies the paper supports. According to a 2012 Media Matters review, WSJ's editorial page published op-eds from 12 writers without disclosing their roles as advisers to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. In 2012 the paper also did not provide Campbell's background when she wrote a similarly critical op-ed of teachers unions in New York.
Right-wing media outlets who have long engaged in a campaign to demonize organized labor may be contributing to economic inequality as economists point to declining union participation as one cause of the growing economic rift in America.
Unions and union workers have been a consistent target for right-wing media figures who have attacked organized labor as a leech on society and destroyer of jobs. In the latest example of anti-union rhetoric, the opponents of organized labor in the conservative media have defended Boeing Co., which has come under fire recently for its anti-worker policies.
On January 3, Boeing's leadership came to an agreement with its largest union that freezes pension plans and limits wage increases for Boeing workers -- all at a time when the company is setting productivity records while its shares are hitting record highs on the New York Stock Exchange. Workers initially rejected the terms, but after Boeing began taking steps to move their jobs to states with anti-union right-to-work laws, they conceded by a margin of 51-49%.
Fox News and the Wall Street Journal touted the development as a victory for Boeing and the people of Washington state, where the company is headquartered. On the January 7 edition of Fox & Friends, above on-screen text that read "Flying High, Boeing's Victory Over Big Labor," co-host Steve Doocy asked whether the deal was "a nail in the coffin of America's unions?"
But LA Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik argued that the real impact of the vote "is that it continues -- even accelerates -- the hollowing-out of America's once thriving middle class" by shifting the company's profits away from workers and toward shareholders:
Any way you cut it, the workers are getting squeezed. A Boeing machinist job, once the reliable foundation of a middle-class lifestyle, will be much less of one in the future. It won't be exactly hard time--with average pay about $70,000 "it's still one of the best deals you can get for a blue-collar worker without a college degree," observes Leon Grunberg, a labor relations expert at the University of Puget Sound--but it shrinks the workers' economic horizons considerably, especially for younger workers.
So if Boeing is gaining so much with this deal, where are the gains going? The answer, as is true throughout corporate America, is to shareholders and executives. Under Chairman and Chief Executive James McNerney, who took over in 2005, the company has increased its dividend every year but one, from $1.05 to $2.92 in 2014. That's a total increase of 178%, including a huge bump of 51% this year alone.
At the same time, the company has authorized $17 billion in share buybacks. That's just another way of shoveling money out to shareholders, and surely accounts for a good portion of the company's handsome run-up in share price over the last year, when it has appreciated by more than 80%.
Supporting Hiltzik's claims is a report from the Center for American Progress, which illustrated how the decline in union participation mirrors the decline in middle-class incomes. Economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently argued that preserving "the right to form a union without being sacked for trying" is one of six solutions to reduce income inequality in America.
Fox News hyped baseless claims from fast food industry sources that the recent fast food protests were nothing but "rent-a-mob[s]" and misleadingly cited national labor statistics to minimize the fast-food workers' apparent need for increased wages.
On the December 10 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade suggested that there was a "secret ingredient" in the December 5 demonstrations by fast food workers and their advocates in support of minimum wage increases, asking Fox contributor and anti-union activist Mallory Factor to weigh in. Factor claimed "it was rent-a-mob. purely rent-a-mob," and that "these guys were getting $50, $75 in Seattle, for instance" -- claims which he sourced to the National Restaurant Association. Responding to Factor's assertions, Kilmeade did note that the director of the Fast Food Forward campaign, a group that had helped organize the protests, had denied allegations that protesters had been paid, yet then went on to mislead about the economic factors fueling the protests by claiming that only "2 percent of the workforce are minimum-wage workers and only 1.5 percent of them support their families or themselves on that salary."
Kilmeade's claim that only 2 percent of the workforce is paid the minimum wage references national workforce data, and does not reflect the reality of low wages in the fast food industry. In fact, an August 2013 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that about 13 percent of fast food workers make at or below the federal minimum wage, and about "70 percent of fast-food workers fall in the range between the current $7.25 federal minimum wage and the $10.10 level." From CEPR:
A study by researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of California-Berkeley found that 68 percent of fast food workers are the primary wage earners for their families, and CEPR noted that "more than one-fourth" of all fast food workers are responsible for raising at least one child. According to CEPR, 40 percent of fast food workers are over the age of 25, and of the fast food workers that are above age 20, "almost 85 percent have a high school degree or more and over one-third have spent at least some time in college (including about 6 percent who have earned a college diploma)."
Furthermore, Factor's characterization of the fast-food demonstrators as "rent-a-mobs" echoes a discredited anti-labor line of attack that has been pushed by notorious restaurant industry lobbyist Richard Berman and his anti-labor front groups, The Center for Union Facts and ROC Exposed, as well as by Walmart. The fact that Factor only cites a claim from the National Restaurant Association, an industry lobby group, that the protesters were "paid demonstrators" as a source for his "rent-a-mob" claim does not lend his argument much credibility.
Image via Steve Rhodes
As the Detroit bankruptcy moves forward, Fox News personalities have been quick to blame worker unions and political corruption for the city's unfunded pension liabilities. This discourse ignores the forces actually undermining Detroit's financial solvency: the dramatic reduction of the city's population and taxbase since its post-war peak.
On November 13, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Unite Here v. Mulhall, a case that could make it even more difficult for unions to organize workers. One of the issues in the case is whether a "neutrality agreement" -- where management agrees to remain neutral during a union organizing campaign in exchange for union concessions -- is illegal under a labor statute that prohibits employers from giving unions a "thing of value."
In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal glossed over the fact that these are voluntary agreements, instead claiming that they are the result of union intimidation and collusion. Moreover, the WSJ ignored that neutrality agreements have been an increasingly useful tool for both unions and employers during organization campaigns since a wave of Republican anti-union legislation has placed obstacles between workers and union representatives and disrupted opportunities for workplace productivity.
From the November 13 WSJ editorial:
With their membership declining, unions have become more politically creative and one of their tactics has been to cut deals with management to replace bottom-up organizing on the shoproom floor. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether so-called neutrality agreements between Big Labor and business are collusion that infringes on the rights of employees.
Martin Mulhall (Unite Here v. Mulhall) is a groundskeeper at the Mardi Gras greyhound racetrack in Florida, where he has worked for 40 years. In 2004, Unite Here's Local 355 struck a deal with the company to grease the skids for unionization.
Mr. Mulhall didn't want to join a union and objected to the company entrapping him in a unionized workplace. He sued, arguing that Mardi Gras's collusion with Unite Here is forbidden by the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act, aka Taft-Hartley. Under Section 302 of that law, employers are forbidden from giving any "thing of value" to a union that wants to organize its employees.
While unions typically win only 45% of secret ballot elections, they succeed in 78% of organizing efforts using card check, when the union needs merely to collect signed cards from 50% of the work force to automatically become the monopoly bargaining agent.
If the Justices agree that Mardi Gras's concessions represent a "thing of value," organizers will have a harder time getting companies to sign off on deceptive procedures like card check. Unions will have to spend more time convincing individual workers that they can provide a service worth having. That would be a real thing of value.
WSJ also says unions who bargain for neutrality agreements somehow "intimidate" management, even though in exchange for neutrality, management is assured that the union will not strike in the event of a dispute over the agreement.
Right-wing media are championing an appellate decision currently before the Supreme Court that upended the ability of presidents to appoint nominees during Senate recesses as a repudiation of President Barack Obama. But National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning was a radical decision that ignored long-standing precedent, and if the Supreme Court finds such appointments unconstitutional, governmental operations could be hindered to a historic degree.
The Wall Street Journal pushed the false notion that unions are irrelevant and workers have no interest in joining them, all while ignoring the impact an anti-union state law has had on membership numbers.
On September 18, the WSJ editorial board continued its pretense that union membership decline is due to the unpopularity of collective bargaining, as opposed to the impact of Republican anti-labor legislation. From the September 18 editorial:
One of 2011's biggest political stories was the conflagration in Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker's plans to reform the state's relationship with public employee unions. Two years later the fires have ebbed. Reason? Many union members are deciding there's little point in belonging to a union.
Witness the city of Kenosha. This month the Kenosha Education Association was decertified after it missed a deadline in the certification process, eliminating its ability to bargain for wages. That was the latest in a series of similar decisions by teachers-union members to jettison union representation. In 2011 and 2012, some 13% of 207 Wisconsin school districts and 39 municipal and state units were decertified.
A spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state affiliate of the NEA, said recently, "It seems like the majority of our affiliates in the state aren't seeking recertification, so I don't think the [Kenosha union] is an outlier or unique."
That's a remarkable repudiation of union representation in a state long considered a stronghold. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that since Mr. Walker's union reforms became law, state unions have lost tens of thousands of members, as workers opt to drop out of the union.
But the teachers union in Kenosha (the KEA) was not decertified because the majority of the teachers decided to "jettison" the union. In fact, the union says there was no recertification election at all and "[t]he union exists with or without a recertification vote."
The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggested that the decline in union membership over the last 30 years is due to lack of employee interest, but ignored the impact of aggressively anti-labor "right-to-work" laws and a string of pro-business Supreme Court decisions.
The WSJ claimed that the overall decrease in union membership is indicative of the irrelevance of unionism in the modern workplace. From the September 16 editorial:
The promise of joining a union has always been that it will deliver better pay, benefits and job security. That proposition long ago stopped being true for most workers, and now even the AFL-CIO is tacitly admitting its loss of relevance in the private American workplace. At last week's annual convention in Los Angeles, labor delegates voted to expand AFL-CIO membership, inviting even non-union members to join their flagging consortium.
[A]s dues-paying membership declines, the AFL-CIO is essentially trying to attract the equivalent of donations from the larger public. Send in whatever "dues" payments the AFL-CIO requires for membership, and in return you get--what exactly? At least if you donate during one of those PBS pledge drives, you get a tote bag and maybe a CD of Yanni at the Acropolis. It isn't clear what non-union members will get for their cash, other than the pleasure of knowing they've helped AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka stay in a better class of hotel. Will he throw in a T-shirt?
What the WSJ neglects to mention is a series of anti-union and pro-business Supreme Court decisions over the last 20 years that have drastically reduced union organizers' ability to communicate directly with workers, provided extra protection to employers who try to aggressively prevent unionization in the workplace, and have obstructed access to justice for victims of labor law abuses. These decisions have eroded unions' ability to engage in meaningful communication with potential members, protect themselves from illegal labor practices, and have generally contributed to the reduction in membership numbers.
Fox News continued its assault on the labor movement during a Cashin' In panel discussion that characterized unions as parasitic "vestigial" lobbying organizations that do nothing for their members and harm the economy. As evidence of their claims, the panel referenced a decades-long decline in union membership, but ignored the sustained political assault behind the drop as well as the empirically established economic benefits of a robust labor movement.
On the September 14 edition of Fox News' Cashin' In, host Eric Bolling introduced a segment about union membership drives and protests taking place this month, asking whether the effort was "bad for workers."
Fox regular Jonathan Hoenig explained that the membership drive was necessary, because unions are "parasites" that "need new blood."
Guest Sabrina Schaeffer complained that unions are "no longer representing workers. They're representing political views." She added that labor unions provide "very, very little" to their members.
Fox guest Wayne Rogers argued that unions are "vestigial," saying, "They're not doing anything for the worker."
The panel blamed unionized workers for the demise of Hostess, the textile industry, and the health of the overall economy while gloating that union membership has reached a 40 year low.
Bolling's panel was content to dedicate their airtime to glib metaphors and baseless attacks, ignoring a more substantive discussion on the reasons for declining union membership and the benefits that organized labor provide to union worker, non-union workers, and the economy as a whole.