By Kevin Drawbaugh
(Reuters) - Grover Norquist's trademark cause is fighting high taxes, but the savvy conservative Republican lobbyist just scored a big win on another front - fighting unions - and he wants more, betting on what he sees as a broad shift in U.S. labor politics.
Fresh from helping to crush a unionization drive at a Volkswagen AG plant in Tennessee, Norquist outlined an anti-union strategy that ties labor to liberals, with the long-term goal of sapping union financial support for Democrats.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, he argued that recent events show Republicans can fight and win against unions. "Not only can you, but if you don't, you're a weenie," he said.
Norquist heads Americans for Tax Reform, famous for its pledge not to raise taxes that it gets many politicians to sign, though the group also has long been active on other issues.
It recently rebranded and reinvigorated its anti-union affiliate as the Center for Worker Freedom, which opposed a high-stakes United Auto Workers' effort to unionize the VW plant in Chattanooga. That effort failed on Friday.
While the VW workers' vote to reject the union was a blow to the UAW, it was a vindication for Norquist and his new lieutenant, Matt Patterson, who managed a nearly yearlong campaign against the UAW in the eastern Tennessee city.
Chattanooga is deep inside conservative Republican turf, so Patterson pointedly tied the UAW to President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats in his campaign there to persuade VW workers and the larger community to oppose the union at the plant.
Norquist pledged that more of the same is coming from his group at other, non-unionized foreign-owned auto factories in the U.S. South that the UAW wants to represent, arguing the broad labor landscape is shifting in Republicans' favor.
"Everybody who wants to steal your guns is funded by the unions. Everybody who wants to raise your taxes is funded by the unions. Everybody who wants to borrow too much money is funded by the unions," Norquist said.
"Whatever center-right issue you care about, the unions are on the other team. Unions aren't good at anything," he said, declining to detail who funds his group's anti-union activities.
LABOR'S U.S. CLOUT
Labor unions in the United States are closely allied with and provide major funding to the Democratic Party. Republicans generally oppose unions, lining up with business interests that finance a variety of anti-union pressure groups.
Unions have long been in decline, with the proportion of U.S. workers belonging to one at a historic low of 11.3 percent in 2013, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, government data showed.
The labor movement has stayed stronger, however, among public-sector employees, 35.3 percent of whom were union members last year, versus just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers.
Until recently, Norquist said, Republicans were resigned to public-sector union power. That changed when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie challenged the power of public-sector unions in their states, he said.
At the same time, after years of turmoil, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board recently stabilized, with Obama Democrats in a majority on the board of the federal agency, which supervises union elections and polices unfair labor practices.
"Both playing fields, public and private, are changing. Obama's put his finger on the scales to help unionization in the private sector ... while the Republicans have been able to change the rules for a lot of the states," Norquist said.
A long-term political goal of stepped-up attacks on unions will be to reduce their capacity to fund Democrats, he said.
In Chattanooga, the UAW seemed confident before the election that it would win a majority of workers' votes for unionization.
Norquist recalled: "That meant we had to raise doubts as to what this is all about. Hence the focus on the challenges with the UAW, with their political view; with how left-wing they are; how they give money to everybody who wants to steal your guns and do crazy things with your resources; how they treat you with contempt and how they'd destroy the city."
Since the Chattanooga victory, which Norquist and Patterson acknowledged came as a result of many factors, not just their campaign, potential client interest in the anti-union affiliate that Patterson is managing has picked up, Norquist said.
"People have called and said how impressed they were with the effort," he said. "They haven't said they plan to show up with large quantities of cash in a suitcase or something, but they've been encouraged."
(Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Howard Goller and Jonathan Oatis)