By Amanda Becker
Feb 14 A vote by workers in Tennessee that could
yield the first labor union victory at a foreign-owned auto
plant in the U.S. South will be difficult to challenge, no
matter the outcome, despite growing controversy over the
Volkswagen AG employees at the German company's Chattanooga
plant on Friday will complete three days of voting that has seen
intense political infighting between anti-union forces and the
United Auto Workers (UAW) over unionizing the plant.
Once the result is announced, the parties will have seven
days to file an objection with the U.S. National Labor Relations
Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees union elections
and polices unfair labor practices in the private sector.
NLRB Regional Director Claude Harrell Jr., in the agency's
Atlanta office, would review any claims from either side that
the election result should be set aside.
The fight in Chattanooga has been unusual because of the
deep involvement of anti-union political groups from outside
Tennessee, and any legal basis that they might have to challenge
the election's outcome was uncertain, lawyers said.
"It's uncharted territory," said Lance Compa, a labor
relations professor at Cornell University who has prepared
reports for the UAW in unrelated labor-relations matters.
When a union wins a representation election, the employer is
typically the party to challenge the result. But in Chattanooga,
VW management has remained neutral during the election, even
giving the UAW limited access to workers on company property. So
VW seems like an unlikely challenger, Compa said.
The most vocal opponents of the UAW have been outside
groups, such as the Center for Worker Freedom, an anti-union
organization that is backed by a Washington-based group run by
Grover Norquist, a Republican activist.
The anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense
Foundation, based in northern Virginia, and the Southern
Momentum group have also worked in Chattanooga against the UAW.
It was unclear whether any of these groups would have legal
standing to challenge a UAW victory, given that objections are
traditionally filed by an employer or a union.
Compa said he was unaware of prior cases of an outside group
successfully lodging an objection to an election result. Such a
move would be unlikely to "stop the certification process and
the parties proceeding into collective bargaining," he said.
Recent statements by U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican
from Tennessee, have raised questions about whether the UAW
might have grounds to challenge the election result if its bid
to represent the VW workers fails.
Corker said he has been "assured" that if Chattanooga
workers reject the union, VW will build a new product there,
instead of at a plant in Mexico.
Under U.S. labor law, employers are generally prohibited
from threatening to move operations or otherwise retaliate
against workers during unionization campaigns.
But the NLRB does not have the authority to sanction or
punish lawmakers and members of the general public, only
employers and unions. If Corker's statements are true, the UAW
would have to prove he acted on behalf of VW management to show
that he contaminated the election and made it invalid. The
company has repudiated Corker's claims.
"It is not uncommon for union campaigns to generate pro and
negative comments by public officials and invalidating an
election based primarily on a public official's comments seems
unlikely under existing NLRB precedent," said Dennis Cuneo, a
partner at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor law firm that
Corker's sources and statements, true or untrue, are 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 were engaged in "legislative
"Senators have a constitutional carte blanche to meddle into
anything," said U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. They "have
extraordinary protections under the Constitution."