WASHINGTON -- Gov. Bill Haslam (R) and other Tennessee Republicans scored a major victory earlier this month when the United Auto Workers lost their closely watched bid to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. But less than two weeks after they would have celebrated the UAW vote count, the powerful Haslam family lost a more personal, albeit smaller, face-off with organized labor.
On Monday, workers at a Pilot Flying J gas station and rest stop in Bloomsbury, N.J., voted in favor of union representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The station is one of more than 500 Pilot Flying J locations around the country and part of the Haslam family business, which the governor helped to build. The company's chief executive officer is Bill Haslam's brother, Jimmy, who's also the majority owner of the Cleveland Browns.
Charles Hall, president of RWDSU Local 108, said management at the gas station strongly opposed the workers unionizing. But the final vote count was 12-to-7 in favor and the results were ratified by the National Labor Relations Board, according to Hall.
"They didn't bring in the governor, but they sure brought the pressure to this one Flying J," Hall said. "It's a victory for the workers. It's a sign that workers around the country are getting tired and can fight back. And the way you can do that is through unionization."
Most of the workers in the bargaining unit are cashiers, gas pump attendants and maintenance workers. Their grievances, according to Hall, included low pay, fluctuating job duties and insufficient clothing for cold weather (New Jersey gas stations are full-service).
"They feel like they weren't being treated with a great deal of respect," Hall said. "They wanted the company to share success with them."
Anne LeZotte, communications manager for Pilot Flying J, told HuffPost, "We would simply like to reiterate that we value all of our team members and appreciate their hard work and commitment to serving our customers."
Previously known as Pilot Travel Centers, the Haslams' company merged with Flying J in 2010, and the business has played an important role in the governor's political fortunes and has been featured prominently in past campaign ads.
"Governor Haslam fought viciously and publicly against the UAW's effort to organize the workers at Volkswagen," RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. "Yet, 10 days later, the workers at his family-owned business have voted to unionize. Workers employed by his own family have demanded the dignity and respect that a union brings to the workplace."
Along with other GOP lawmakers, Haslam was accused by union officials of inserting himself into the UAW election and possibly influencing workers' votes. Haslam said publicly that a victory by the union would hurt the state's ability to attract Volkswagen suppliers. The UAW cited Haslam's statement in a petition now under consideration by the NLRB to have the results set aside and a new election held.
After the vote, Haslam said unions were important to U.S. workers "in the past" but are now a "diminishing" force, Politico reported.
According to Hall, managers at the Pilot Flying J location urged workers not to join the union. The tactics alleged by Hall included a game in which workers were invited to guess how many items were in a wrapped basket of groceries; whoever guessed the amount would win the basket. The workers were told that the total value of the groceries was equivalent to the union dues they would pay over the course of a year, Hall said.