(Reuters) - Anti-union Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) workers will get a chance to defend the results of a mid-February union election that the United Auto Workers lost at a Chattanooga, Tennessee VW plant, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board has decided.
The unusual NLRB ruling on Monday gave anti-UAW groups, including the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and Southern Momentum, which back workers defending the election, more leverage in the fight over unionizing the plant.
The ruling means that if the NLRB holds a hearing on the dispute, the anti-UAW workers will be able to take part and state their case, along with the UAW.
No hearing has been scheduled, though labor lawyers have said there likely will be one, given VW's size and the high-profile nature of the UAW challenge.
Moreover, the ruling gives the anti-UAW workers and their allies the right to appeal any decision made by the NLRB's Atlanta office to the full five-member board of the NLRB in Washington, D.C.
After years of declining membership, the UAW is trying to expand into the American South among non-union, foreign-owned auto plants. This effort last month collided with opposition from senior Tennessee Republicans and others.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker and Governor Bill Haslam, as well as business-backed groups from Washington, including one headed by small-government crusader Grover Norquist, actively campaigned against the UAW in Chattanooga.
The UAW lost its effort to organize the VW plant there when workers voted 712-626 not to join the union. It then asked the NLRB to set aside the results of the election, arguing that the politicians and outside groups compromised the process.
The Chattanooga dispute is uncharted territory in several ways. VW remained technically neutral during the UAW campaign, but the German company gave the union access to its facilities during the days leading up to the election. Employers often oppose union campaigns, but VW did not and also said it would not defend the election results before the board.
Former NLRB General Counsel Fred Feinstein predicted in an interview on Monday that the Atlanta regional office's determination in the case "is a couple of months off. And it could take a lot longer than that."
Feinstein serves on the UAW's external review board, which handles internal grievances and reviews the decisions made by union leaders.
The NLRB's decision to allow the anti-UAW workers to intervene in the union's election challenge means that they are now parties to the case. Employers and unions are typically the only parties to an election challenge. So, it is "pretty unusual" for outside groups or workers to seek - much less attain - that status, Feinstein said.
"It is different than being granted the ability to submit what are essentially amicus briefs, or opinions on the law and opinions about what happened," Feinstein said.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, based in the Washington area, said in a statement that it was "very pleased" with the NLRB decision.
A UAW representative declined to comment on the decision or on whether the union will ask the NLRB's board to review it.
In the NLRB regional office's inquiry, both sides can submit evidence. A hearing is common, but not mandated, lawyers said.
"The sole remedy here is ordering a new election," Feinstein said.
Feinstein predicted it could be weeks before a hearing, which could last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
Reporting by Amanda Becker and Kevin Drawbaugh in Washington; firstname.lastname@example.org; 202 789-8011 nL2N0M81W8