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Will the NLRB Stand Up for Workplace Democracy at VW?

(Photo: Hamish Irvine / Flickr)

Last Friday the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protesting a “firestorm of interference” with the landmark union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga. After being subjected to weeks of intensive anti-union campaigning, which included brazen threats by powerful Republican politicians, the company’s employees voted by a narrow margin against unionization.

The NLRB has the authority to set aside a tainted vote because of third-party interference when that interference creates “a general atmosphere of fear or reprisal rendering a free election impossible.” The evidence that interference by Republicans lawmakers – reinforced by the actions of anti-union groups – made a free election impossible in Chattanooga is compelling. Several times and in several different forums, powerful Republicans stated that a vote for unionization would diminish the job security of Volkswagen workers. Workers participating in the high-profile election that attracted national media attention could not have failed to hear these threats multiple times or to have had them uppermost in their minds when they voted. The threats of senior Republican politicians, which were reported in local and national media and repeated by anti-union groups, made a fair election at Chattanooga impossible.

First, leading Republican lawmakers – including state Tennessee House leaders and influential state senators – threatened to withhold tax incentives and other financial benefits from Volkswagen if workers voted for unionization. Workers understood that withholding these benefits likely would mean fewer VW jobs in Tennessee in the future. These threats were disseminated widely through broadcast media, social media and websites, some of which were paid for by anti-union organizations. Workers participating in the election heard about the threats from multiple sources, including directly from powerful politicians who had the authority to act upon them. When leaders in the Legislature stated that the company might lose financial incentives, VW workers had good reason to expect that they would act on these threats. This evidence of coercive third-party interference can be grounds for overturning a representation election.

Second, the coercive comments of Sen. Richard Corker, a Tennessee Republican, fundamentally damaged the election process. On day one of the three-day election, Corker stated he had been “assured” that VW would manufacture its new midsize SUV in Chattanooga if workers voted against unionization. Volkswagen’s chief executive in the United States immediately refuted his remarks, but in response Corker suggested that his information came from executives in Germany. Corker’s calculated comments almost certainly caused widespread fear and confusion among the workers and encouraged them to vote “no.” If Volkswagen management had stated that it would bring the new product to Chattanooga only if workers voted against the union, the NLRB would rule its comments unlawful. Corker misused the authority of his office to tell workers that his high-level connections at the company had told him that a vote against the UAW was a vote for greater job security. His cynical remarks clearly constitute improper interference with workers’ free choice and should result in the election being overturned.

Third, Corker’s comments were widely reported in print and television media, repeated many times by anti-union organizations, and must have been heard by every VW worker, thereby making a fair vote impossible. These comments alone may have decided the outcome of the election. It now appears that Corker’s comments were entirely without foundation. Following the tainted vote, a high-ranking member of VW’s global works council stated that the anti-union interference had made future investment in the US South less likely.

Finally, the sophisticated anti-union campaign at Chattanooga suggests a high degree of coordination between out-of-state organizations, many of which have joined together in previous anti-labor policy campaigns. While they have collaborated on legislative issues like “paycheck protection” and “right to work,” this was the first time that groups with links to Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers had descended en masse on one community to attack a specific union in a NLRB election at a private company. It beggars belief that these groups decided independently to come to Chattanooga without coordinating their anti-union activities. They have refused to disclose how much they spent or where the money came from. But it is safe to assume that right-wing billionaires bankrolled this campaign for “worker freedom,” and their sole intention was to intimidate VW workers into voting against the union.

The anti-union National Right to Work Committee has vowed to “exercise every legal option” to defend the stolen election at Volkswagen. With the assistance of NRTWC, five anti-union workers in Chattanooga have intervened with the NLRB to scupper the UAW’s appeal. They have claimed that Volkswagen and the UAW are “colluding to force unionization” onto them and their co-workers. Corker, meanwhile, has stated that the union is using the NLRB to attempt to “muzzle” Republican lawmakers. GOP politicians are entitled to state their opposition to unionization or even that they do not want unionized companies to come to their states, as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recently said about US auto firms. But in the Chattanooga campaign, the comments of Republican lawmakers crossed the line into outright threats and intimidation that undermined workers’ free choice.

Other right-wing groups and Republican lawmakers undoubtedly will join with these attempts to pressure the NLRB not to overturn the tainted vote. This is exactly what one would expect from anti-labor extremists whose only concern is to ensure that the plant remains non-union, even if that means denying Volkswagen workers the right to a free and un-coerced choice.

Under the federal law, workers have the right to vote on union representation in an “atmosphere free of coercion, intimidation and interference.” The threats and intimidation by GOP politicians were so extreme that they created an atmosphere of fear that rendered a free election impossible. In the interests of workplace democracy not just in Chattanooga, but also throughout the country, the NLRB must overturn the tainted vote at Volkswagen.

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