UAW withdraws objection to lost election at VW Chattanooga plant

UPDATED: 4/21/14 1:37 pm ET -- adds comments, background

CHATTANOOGA (Reuters) -- The UAW said today it is withdrawing its objection claiming undue outside political interference in a February vote it lost among workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in Tennessee.

UAW President Bob King, in a statement issued by the union this morning, said the process of objecting to the National Labor Relations Board could have dragged on for months if not years.

King and the UAW announced the withdrawal on the morning of the scheduled start of an NLRB hearing in Chattanooga on the union's objection.

"We welcome the decision by the UAW," Volkswagen said in a statement. "It provides an important gesture for a constructive dialogue in Chattanooga."

The NLRB indicated today that it would accept the UAW's withdrawal, according to Maury Nicely, a UAW opponent and lawyer who attended a brief proceeding in Chattanooga. An NLRB representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Nicely said this now clears the way for the NLRB to certify the election.

Mike Burton, a Volkswagen worker and vocal UAW opponent, said today by telephone that he was able to declare victory once more.

"We won on February 14," he said. "And now the clock can begin on the year that the UAW has to stay away from the plant. We will be watching."

Burton referred to an NLRB provision that prohibits any union activity in a plant after an election for a year after the vote has been certified.

Uphill battle

The UAW, which has seen membership dwindle in the last several decades, has had no success in recruiting workers at automotive assembly plants owned by foreign companies in the U.S. South.

Volkswagen was seen as its brightest hope because VW officials agreed not to fight 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, which the union hoped would increase its chances of victory.

But in the election held Feb. 12-14, workers voted 712-626 against allowing the UAW to represent them.

Volkswagen officials at the automaker's German headquarters want Chattanooga workers represented by a works council that would include both blue- and white-collar employees. But most legal and labor experts say that to do so in accordance with U.S. labor law, an American union would have to represent workers on issues of wages and benefits.

In its statement issued on Monday, VW indicated that it still wanted "to set up a new, innovative form of co-determination in the USA."

During the UAW Chattanooga election in February, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, caused a stir when he lashed out against the UAW and said he had had "conversations" suggesting that if the union effort failed, VW would announce the production of a new line of SUVs at the Chattanooga plant. Corker is a former mayor of Chattanooga.

In his statement today, the UAW's King said, "The unprecedented political interference by Gov. (Bill) Haslam, Sen. Corker and others was a distraction for Volkswagen employees and a detour from achieving Tennessee's economic priorities.

"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."

During the election campaign, Republican Haslam and other Tennessee politicians threatened to cut off financial incentives to Volkswagen if the UAW were installed as labor representative of the workers.

Legal and labor experts had said that the UAW faced an uphill battle trying to convince the NLRB that elected officials could not speak freely about a union election.

King said he would next try to take his case against what he called outside interference by politicians to Congress.

"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.

However, in a divided Congress where Democrats are the minority in the House of Representatives, it is questionable whether the UAW will be able to gain any traction.

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