VOL. 129 | NO. 38 | Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Watson Sets Record Straight About Labor Union Views
BOBBY ALLYN | Special to The Daily News
Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson, a Republican from Hixon, has been showing up in the national media lately, thanks to his public statements against unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
On Feb. 14, officials announced workers had voted not to join the United Automobile Workers by a 43-vote margin.
As the second-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, Watson spends most of his time working on the state’s budgetary matters. When it comes to other issues, Watson says he feels most comfortable in the supporting role, not the pack leader.
Having a supermajority, he says, “takes some wisdom and restraint to know the right things to do.”
Always sporting a bowtie around the Capitol, Watson insists that he tries to duck national headlines when he can. He last gained widespread notice for a bill that gave teachers the latitude to discuss both sides of issues such as evolution and climate change in classrooms.
Critics worried that it would open the door to letting religion into class discussion, while Watson maintained he just wanted to give teachers options – and that it changed very little about existing law. Watson studied biology, then physical therapy before becoming a state senator.
The Nashville Ledger talked to Watson about his stance on unions and what he makes of how his words have been received by the media.
What informs your view of labor unions?
“I don’t necessarily have an issue with labor unions. That’s been misconstrued.
“I guess you wouldn’t classify me as a labor union fan. I respect the workers’ right to vote for a union. But what concerned me about this particular union activity was the way the campaign was being conducted, where you had labor and management on the same side, and you have those who might be in an antiunion conversation being disenfranchised from the conversation.
“I don’t think that’s in the traditions of labor campaigns. I think labor unions have a right to exist, obviously. They play an important and valuable role in our nation’s history, and they have been part of the fabric of our economy.
“Workers have a right to choose. I endorse and respect that. But both sides of the arguments have the right to have equal access to workers to make their case. Then we have an election, and it turns out however it turns out. Then we moved forward.
“It’s been understood in news reports that I called labor unions un-American. That is untrue and inaccurate.
“If you go back and read, what I said was the way this campaign has developed, where one side is allowed to speak and another side does not, that is, my opinion, unfair and unbalanced and un-American, in the traditions of labor campaigns – not in the traditions of unions. I would never be so naive or foolish to imply that they are un-American. That is simply a political maneuver to misstate what I said.”
Do you think that high union density discourages business investment?
“I think that’s what economists have argued. If you look at the migration of business and industry, the majority of those have been to right-to-work states where labor union penetration is less dense, thus you have seen the migration of heavy industry out of the Northeast and upper Midwest and into the Southeast. That’s part of the equation.
“When you’re doing economic development, one of the factors that businesses will look at when making a determination is labor union density.
The Chattanooga area, Hamilton County, has about a 4 percent labor union population – most of the larger employees are not unionized there. They see a labor union like the UAW coming in, and perhaps, destroying the relationship they had with their employees for years, if not decades.
“In this particular instance, you have a labor union that has lost 1.3 million members. They’re down to 300,000-some-odd members. They have to raise dues of their members. They sold off assets to fund themselves. They are in need in members. They’re looking for areas where they can expand, so they come to the auto plant in Chattanooga. That’s well and good – if that’s what the workers want.”
Is it fair to tie unionization to incentives?
“I think the point that has been missed that I have been trying to make is that, first, that we would not take away incentives that we have promised to Volkswagen.
“What I was trying to point out is that in this General Assembly we have members who did not think we should incentivize any company. They view it as corporate welfare. When you add the labor component to it, it makes getting incentives more difficult. I didn’t say they wouldn’t happen. I didn’t say I’d oppose them. I just said the reality is that the people who oppose unions are going to use it as an argument.”
A friend of mine who is a union organizer told me that if VW were making the kinds of threats against workers as Tennessee Republicans are, they would be breaking federal labor law. Is that an unfair analogy?
“Yeah. I didn’t make a threat. What threat did I make? I just told them how I view the lay of the land. It wasn’t intended as a threat. I was saying that if you look at the makeup of this General Assembly, you can see that incentives can be challenging to begin with because we’ve done incentives that didn’t pan out, that didn’t work.
“And the critics say there’s one that didn’t work out. This gives critics another arrow in their quiver to say, ‘Now, look we have this problem down here.’ So that was the intent. This is an election. These are passionate times, and people take words and use them to advance their argument. That’s the political process. I understand that.
“I was trying to be is as honest with the workers as I could. Again, that I don’t think there has been fair dialogue. Access has been limited on one side versus the other. The second: that this will make the process a little more challenging.”