Union appeals Chattanooga vote loss, cites GOP lawmakers’ interference

DETROIT (PAI) – The United Auto Workers have filed formal unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board concerning their narrow loss in the union recognition vote at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.  But in what may be an unprecedented move, they said outside interference by Republican politicians illegally skewed the vote.

“A firestorm of interference from politicians and special interest groups threatening the economic future of the plant occurred just before and during three days of voting in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board,” the union said in a statement.

“Workers voted narrowly to reject representation, with a slim 44-vote swing.  The objections detail a coordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign conducted by politicians and outside organizations to deprive Volkswagen workers of their federally protected right  to join a union,” the UAW added.

“The campaign included publicly-announced and widely disseminated threats by elected officials that state-financed incentives would be withheld if workers exercised their protected right to form a union,” it added.

Outside labor law experts said the UAW’s challenge to the outcome based on outside interference, as opposed to company labor law-breaking, has few precedents and little chance of success. 

But the UAW cited 1977 and 1984 NLRB decisions setting aside union losses in recognition votes for just that reason.  It wants the labor board to overturn the election results and order a rerun.  

Technically, the union filed its case against Volkswagen, even though the firm made clear that it was officially neutral, if not supportive, of the type of labor-management relations UAW envisioned had it won. 

But the NLRB filing barely mentions VW, except to point out that the firm’s officials refuted the Republicans’ and right wingers’ claims in the election’s final days.

The union lost the tally, after three days of voting, by a 712-626 margin in the 1,570-worker plant.  The union and the company agreed that, had the union won, they would have established a joint labor-management “works council,” similar to those legally required in VW’s home nation of Germany, to run labor-management relations.

But while VW was neutral, Republican Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, GOP Gov. Bill Haslam, and the GOP state legislative majority, along with wealthy outside anti-union groups and individuals, were not. 

The politicians threatened to take away state-sponsored tax breaks for further expansion in Chattanooga.  Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., declared that if the plant went union, it wouldn’t get a new SUV assembly line.  And, in not-so-subtle appeals to racism,  billboards and radio ads tied the union to President Obama and gun control.

All that made an honest election impossible, the UAW’s filing with the NLRB says.

Haslam and the state lawmakers were the main culprits, their complaint adds, before Corker jumped in on Feb. 12, after the voting had already started.

“The threats were very significant, because state financial incentives were a key component” that convinced VW to build in Chattanooga in the first place, the UAW told the labor board.  The same incentives “are a key component” for any future VW decision on “expansion, full capacity utilization and heightened job security” in Chattanooga, the union added.

“The state officials’ threats were a constant presence in the minds” of the workers as they cast votes, Feb. 12-14, UAW said.  They were “a blatant attempt to create an atmosphere of fear” in the plant “to influence the outcome of the election and cause employees to vote against UAW representation.”

Corker’s coercion was a press conference where he declared VW assured him that if the workers went union, the plant would not get a production line for a new SUV. VW executives promptly said that wasn’t true.

Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, “issued his dual threat and promise of benefit to coerce the workforce” into voting against the UAW, the union’s complaint to the NLRB says.  “Of course, the only entity that can assure where a product is manufactured is Volkswagen itself,” their filing laconically adds.

The cumulative impact of the political interference is that “no employee could vote without a well-founded fear that exercise of the franchise could mean that both their job security and the financial health of the plant was in serious jeopardy,” UAW stated. 

“Such an environment, foisted on VW workers by politicians who have no regard for workers’ rights under federal law is completely contrary to the environment the National Labor Relations Act demands for union certification elections.”

Photo: In this 2012 photo, an employee works on a Passat sedan at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Erik Schelzig/AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.