WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The National Labor Relations Board has decided that anti-union workers at Volkswagen AG can defend the results of a mid-February union election that the UAW lost at the company's plant in Chattanooga.
The NLRB's unusual ruling on Monday gives anti-UAW groups, such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and Southern Momentum, 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 may participate and make their case, along with the UAW. No hearing has been scheduled, though labor lawyers have said there likely will be one.
The UAW is trying to expand into the American South's non-union, foreign-owned auto assembly plants. But its effort last month collided with opposition from senior Tennessee politicians, such as U.S. Senator Bob Corker and Governor Bill Haslam, both Republicans, as well as outside interest groups, including one from Washington that is headed by small-government crusader Grover Norquist.
The UAW lost its effort to organize the VW plant 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 outside parties compromised the process.
The Chattanooga dispute is unusual in several ways. VW remained technically neutral during the UAW campaign, though the German company gave the union access to its facilities during the days leading up to the election. Employers often oppose union campaigns. The automaker also said it would not defend election results before the board.
The NLRB's regional office in Atlanta is handling the UAW's challenge to the election. That office is investigating whether outside groups interfered in the election process. Its findings can be appealed to the five-member NLRB board in Washington.
Former NLRB General Counsel Fred Feinstein said in an interview on Monday that the 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.