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UAW challenges result of Tennessee VW plant union vote

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 Kevin Drawbaugh

(Reuters) - The United Auto Workers filed an appeal with the U.S. government on Friday, asking it to set aside the results of an election last week in which workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant voted not to join the union.

Citing what it called "interference by politicians and outside special interest groups," the UAW said the U.S. National Labor Relations Board would investigate the election and decide if there are grounds to scrap it and hold a new one.

The move by the union escalates a battle with anti-union Republicans that has intensified as the UAW, its membership rolls in decline, has tried hard to organize workers at foreign-owned, non-union auto plants across the American South.

Labor lawyers and academics said last week it would be difficult for the union to make a case for setting aside the election. They said labor law does not limit what can be said in a union election campaign by politicians, as long as they are stating their own views and not doing the bidding of management.

The law does strictly limit the statements that can be made by management and the union itself, they said.

An NLRB spokesman said the UAW will have seven days to provide evidence. An NLRB regional director will investigate and a hearing will likely follow. Chattanooga falls under the purview of the board's regional director in Atlanta.

The UAW said in a statement that its appeal details "a coordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign conducted by politicians and outside organizations to deprive Volkswagen workers of their federally protected right to join a union."

The election loss at the plant in Chattanooga was a blow to the UAW, which spent two years trying to convince the workers there to unionize, but still lost, even with the support of VW.

A spokesman for VW in Chattanooga declined to comment.

Conservative Republicans spoke out against the UAW in the final days of the election campaign. Among the most vocal critics of the union was Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga.

The UAW said its appeal calls Corker's conduct "shameful and undertaken with utter disregard for the rights of the citizens of Tennessee and surrounding states that work at Volkswagen."

CORKER FIRES BACK

Corker said in a statement he was "disappointed" by the UAW appeal. "The UAW is only interested in its own survival and not the interests of the great employees at Chattanooga's Volkswagen facility nor the company for which they work," he said.

Last week, as the three-day election campaign came to a head, Corker said publicly that he had learned Volkswagen would bring an additional production line for SUVs to the plant, creating more jobs, if workers rejected the UAW.

VW officials contradicted Corker at the time, saying a decision on the additional line was unrelated to the election.

By inserting himself and his statements into the campaign, the senator raised questions about whether he had contaminated the voting. NLRB rules bar management during union election campaigns from trying to frighten workers with threats of job cuts or layoffs if they vote for a union.

Corker returned to the same theme on Friday, saying in his statement, "I have to assume that today's action may slow down Volkswagen's final discussions on the new SUV line."

President Barack Obama, who had the support of labor unions in both his White House election campaigns, last week 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.

DEMOCRATS HAVE NLRB MAJORITY

Obama recently got a majority of Democrats appointed to the five-member NLRB, which is historically more pro-union when Democrats hold the White House, and less so when Republicans do.

UAW President Bob King blasted what he called "extraordinary interference in the private decision of workers to have a U.S. senator, a governor and leaders of the state legislature threaten the company with the denial of economic incentives and workers with a loss of product."

Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said in a statement: "For 30 years, tens of thousands of new auto jobs have raised Tennessee family incomes and our workers have decided in almost every case that they are better off union-free. The UAW may not like this, but that is the right of employees in a right-to-work state like Tennessee."

(Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit and David Lawder in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller, Bernard Orr)

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