WASHINGTON – The United Auto Workers on Friday challenged last week’s close vote by workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., that rejected the UAW’s bid to represent them.
In an appeal filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the union asserted that “interference by politicians and outside special interest groups” had swayed the election.
In particular, the appeal took aim at Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and former Chattanooga mayor, who suggested that a “no” vote would lead a Volkswagen expansion in the state.
The UAW bid was defeated in a 712-626 vote, even though the German company generally is considered labour-friendly.
“It’s an outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee,” UAW President Bob King said.
The union had faced a midnight Friday deadline for filing the action with the NLRB. The rejection by Volkswagen workers dealt a harsh setback to the union, especially since Volkswagen did not oppose the unionization drive.
“Sen. Corker’s conduct was shameful and undertaken with utter disregard for the rights of the citizens of Tennessee and surrounding states that work at Volkswagen,” the UAW’s filing asserted. “The clear message of the campaign was that voting for the union would result in stagnation for the Chattanooga plant, with no new product, no job security, and withholding of state support for its expansion.”
Corker defended his high-profile opposition to the UAW’s overture. “The workers at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant spoke very clearly last week, so we are disappointed the UAW is ignoring their decision and has filed this objection,” he said Friday in a statement.
Tennessee Republican officials including Gov. Bill Haslam and several state lawmakers were also critical of the UAW overture, and some warned that a union win at the plant would threaten state incentives. The UAW filing described the politicians’ activities as “a co-ordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign.”
A spokesman for Haslam would only say that “the governor is focused on working with Volkswagen on future growth in Tennessee.”
A Volkswagen spokesman in Chattanooga, Scott Wilson, declined to comment on the appeal.
The UAW challenge comes days after the top labour representative on Volkswagen’s supervisory board suggested that the anti-union atmosphere fostered by Southern conservatives could lead the company to make future investments elsewhere. Worker representatives make up half of the board that has control over all management decisions at Volkswagen.
Volkswagen has announced plans to spend $7 billion in North America over the next five years.
The vote against the UAW was a setback to the union’s goal of expanding into foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S., particularly those in the South.
The union included various news accounts of remarks by Corker and other Tennessee Republican officials in its filing. It called upon the NLRB to “set aside the election and order that a new election be held.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labour history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the Democratic-controlled NLRB may be looking to set a precedent about union intimidation but that the VW vote doesn’t present the best facts to do so.
“If I were a liberal member of the NLRB, I’d look for a really egregious case of management interference to make a point about curbing the capacity of management to close plants or move,” said Lichtenstein, who described himself as a labour supporter. “The prospects are poor here because it was third-party public officials.”
Volkswagen worker Sean Moss, who was among a group of anti-UAW organizers, said the union’s complaint smacks of desperation because it couldn’t persuade workers. “It’s definitely sour grapes,” he said.
Moss said he thought enough of his colleagues had already decided to oppose the union before Corker and other elected officials got involved.
“I don’t think they had as big of an impact as the UAW wants to believe,” he said. “But they have to believe that, because it’s their only leg to stand on.”
Schelzig reported from Nashville, Tenn.