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UAW legal test of Volkswagen vote would be problematic

A general view of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga,Tennessee February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
A general view of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga,Tennessee February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

By Amanda Becker and Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen AG plant were bombarded with strong anti-union messages before and during their vote to reject unionizing last week, but a legal challenge to the outcome over unfair interference would be difficult to mount.

Tennessee U.S. Senator Bob Corker, other Republican politicians in the state, and several anti-union pressure groups from Washington slugged it out with the United Auto Workers in the campaign to win over employees at the Chattanooga plant.

Even though VW management allowed the UAW to have limited access to the workforce on company property and publicly took a "neutral" stance over the vote, the workers voted not to join the union, which has been unable to expand into non-union plants in the U.S. South.

The UAW has not ruled out a challenge, saying it will "evaluate" the conduct in the campaign. UAW President Bob King said after the ballots were counted on Friday night that the union was "outraged at the outside interference in this election."

President Barack Obama on Friday accused politicians in Chattanooga of being "more concerned about German shareholders than American workers," according to a Democratic aide who heard the remarks at a closed meeting with lawmakers.

U.S. labor law carefully restricts what employers and unions can say during a unionization campaign, according to labor lawyers and academics. But outsiders, especially politicians, have relatively free rein to say what they want.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board supervised the Chattanooga vote, as it does other union elections.

The NLRB was expected to certify the results soon. After that, any protest must be made within seven days to NLRB Regional Director Claude Harrell Jr., in the agency's Atlanta office.

CORKER'S ROLE

As the campaign in Chattanooga came to a head last week, Senator Corker said publicly that he had learned that Volkswagen would bring an additional vehicle production operation to the plant, creating more jobs, if workers rejected the UAW.

As former mayor of Chattanooga, the Tennessee senator played a key role in bringing the plant to the city. It opened in 2011.

By inserting himself and his statements into the campaign, Corker raised questions about whether he had contaminated the voting. NLRB rules limit the kinds of statements that may be made in such a union campaign. For instance, management is barred from trying to frighten workers with threats of job cuts or layoffs if they vote for a union.

Such limits do not apply to politicians, however, or to outside pressure groups, so long as they are expressing their own views and are not doing the bidding of management. The NLRB does not have the authority to sanction or punish lawmakers and members of the public, only employers and unions, lawyers said.

Besides Corker, other UAW opponents included the Center for Worker Freedom, an anti-union group backed by a Washington-based organization run by Republican activist Grover Norquist, best known for his campaigns against tax increases.

The anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, based in northern Virginia, and the Southern Momentum group also worked in Chattanooga against the UAW.

The company repudiated Corker's claims about more work coming to the plant if the UAW were turned away.

The UAW spent more than two years organizing in Chattanooga and then called a snap election in an agreement with VW.

Cornell University labor relations Professor Lance Compa said anti-union statements by Corker and other lawmakers could only be framed by the NLRB as undue interference if there was evidence to show that VW put them up to it.

"There have been cases when politicians spoke up in favor of the union, and management in those cases filed unfair labor practice charges, but they didn't hold up. Politicians have the right to express their wrongheaded opinions," said Compa, who has prepared unrelated reports for the UAW in the past.

Moreover, Corker's statements were likely protected by the U.S. Constitution's "Speech or Debate" clause, which shields lawmakers from litigation or even having to defend themselves, so long as they are engaged in "legislative activity."

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by Martin Howell and Jonathan Oatis)

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