On Friday, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of a recent vote to unionize in a Volkswagen (VW) plant in Tennessee, claiming a “firestorm of interference from politicians and special interest groups” interfered and made it impossible to have a free election.
The week before, workers narrowly defeated an attempt to unionize the plant in Chattanooga, which would have also led to the creation of the first-ever works council in an American plant, a formalized structure for employers to share information with workers and for workers to give feedback on workplace safety and productivity. The failed vote came as somewhat of a surprise, given that VW had vowed to remain neutral and organizers believed a majority of workers supported the idea of a union.
But it also came after strong statements from some Tennessee lawmakers against the campaign to organize. State Sen. Bo Watson (R) warned that a vote to unionize at the plant would imperil state incentives for VW’s expansion. Sen. Bob Corker (R) told the press that VW was planning to build a new line of cars at the plant if workers rejected the union, although the company denied that idea. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) told a local paper that there would be “some ramifications” for the state’s ability to attract other businesses if workers voted to join the union.
It is these statements and others that the UAW cites in its objection. It claims they “conducted what appears to have been a coordinated and widely-publicized coercive campaign…to deprive [Chattanooga VW] workers of their federally-protected right, through the Election, to support and select the UAW…free of coercion, intimidation, threats and interference.” The appeal asks the NLRB to set aside the results from the election and to let the union hold another one. According to the UAW’s press release, “The NLRB will investigate the election conduct and determine whether there are grounds to set aside the election results and hold a new election for Volkswagen workers.”
That could be a difficult request, however. As Gary Kotz, a partner with the firm Butzel Long that often represents companies, told USA Today, the UAW hasn’t accused VW of wrongdoing, and normally to have election results thrown out a union has to prove that those who interfered were doing the bidding of the company.
Even if the election results stand, VW has vowed to pursue a works council inside the plant, something it is familiar with given that all of its other plants around the world have that structure in place. But that desire could run up against U.S. labor law, as the company itself couldn’t create a committee that would deal in any way with wages, hours, or working conditions. The company is also facing pressure at home to get its Tennessee workers organized, as its labor representative in Germany has threatened to block the expansion of more plants in the American south if workers aren’t unionized. The threat carries weight, given that his group would have to sign off on any major new plans.