The United Auto Workers dropped its appeal of a worker vote against unionizing at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, citing “unprecedented political interference.” The union said the move should put pressure on Republican politicians to quickly approve incentives the German automaker is seeking to expand its lone U.S. assembly plant.
The prolonged fight over labor issues at the Chattanooga facility appeared headed for a lengthy National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) appeal until the UAW announced an hour before a scheduled hearing that it was ending its challenge.
In a statement issued by the union on Monday, UAW President Bob King said the process of objecting to the National Labor Relations Board could have dragged on for months if not years.
The appeal had focused on public statements made by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other GOP officials that the union argued raised fears among workers about the plant's future if they voted to organize.
During the vote campaign, Haslam and others threatened to cut off financial incentives to Volkswagen if the UAW were installed as labor representative of the workers. Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, claimed during the vote that VW would not place additional work at the plant if the UAW won the election. UAW lost the February vote by 86 votes.
"The unprecedented political interference by Gov. Haslam, Sen. Corker and others was a distraction for Volkswagen employees and a detour from achieving Tennessee's economic priorities," King said.
Union supporters also chafed at revelations that a previous $300 million incentive package from Tennessee had been made contingent on the labor situation there concluding to the satisfaction of the state, where anti-UAW Republicans hold sway.
The UAW says it will now focus on a congressional investigation launched by two House Democrats into the anti-unionization campaign, though it's unclear what that probe will achieve unless it is also taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"The UAW will ask Congress to examine the use of federal funds in the state's incentives threat, in order to protect Tennessee jobs and workers in the future," the union statement said.
Some GOP lawmakers had blamed the appeal for holding up expansion plans at the plant. The UAW says that perceived obstacle is now out of the way.
"Now they need to step up and do what's right for VW and those workers over there, get the incentives without any strings attached," UAW Regional Director Gary Casteel said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
"The UAW is ready to put February's tainted election in the rearview mirror and instead focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga," King said.
Corker and Haslam opposed UAW expanding its reach in Tennessee, arguing that a union win at Volkswagen would hurt the state's ability to attract other manufacturers and suppliers. The vote proved a setback for the UAW, which hopes to expand to foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S., particularly those in the South.
Haslam also acknowledged that the end of the NLRB case does not preclude future union involvement in the plant.
"Obviously at any point in time, if there's an election if the UAW wins, they win," Haslam said. "Our concern here was there was a clear election and they hadn't won."
Volkswagen wants to introduce a German-style works council at the plant to represent both salaried and blue-collar workers, but the company's interpretation of U.S. law has been that it can't do so without the involvement of an independent union.
The company issued a statement welcoming the UAW decision as "an important gesture for a constructive dialogue in Chattanooga." Volkswagen said it would continue to pursue its efforts to establish "a new, innovative form of co-determination in the USA."
Volkswagen officials agreed not to work against the UAW and allowed the union direct access to workers at the plant during work hours, a rarity by companies in a UAW organizing drive.