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How Tenn. politicians killed Volkswagen unionization

Leaked documents reveal how Tennessee politicians exerted pressure to block unionization in Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant.
Passat sedans come off the assembly line at the Volkswagen automobile assembly plant, Feb. 21, 2012, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Passat sedans come off the assembly line at the Volkswagen automobile assembly plant, Feb. 21, 2012, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Right-wing groups may have successfully defeated a unionization bid at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn. manufacturing plant, but it wasn't a clean victory. Now the United Auto Workers (UAW), the union behind the unsuccessful Chattanooga organizing campaign, is taking the fight to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that outside groups contaminated the vote -- a claim which may be bolstered by recently-leaked documents from the governors' office.

UAW lost a union election at the Chattanooga plant in mid-February, even though Volkswagen's corporate leadership gave its blessing to unionization and agreed not to contest the vote. UAW claimed that right-wing politicians and interest groups from outside the state had illegally contaminated the vote by intimidating workers, and in late February it asked the NLRB to declare the vote invalid so that a new one could be held.

“It is 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," said UAW president Bob King in a statement announcing the NLRB appeal. "We’re committed to standing with the Volkswagen workers to ensure that their right to have a fair vote without coercion and interference is protected.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, has long denied that his administration put economic pressure on Volkswagen to block unionization. But documents obtained by a local TV news channel earlier this week lend credence to the UAW's claims. On Monday, Tennessee's News Channel 5 reported it had received leaked documents in which Tennessee state officials explicitly linked the plant's internal governing structure with economic incentives for Volkswagen.

According to one internal memo dated several months before the unionization vote, the proposed tax incentives for Volkswagen were "subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and Volkswagen being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee." UAW and Volkswagen had planned on developing a German-style "works council" union model within the plant after the election.

Dave Smith, a spokesperson for the governor, confirmed the authenticity of the documents to msnbc but said they do not the contradict governor's public statements on the matter.

"A different financial offer – for more or less – was never made based on whether the company unionized or not," said Smith in an email. "It is important to note that the state of Tennessee has incentivized unionized companies before." The governor, he said, "has been consistent and very clear about the state's interest" in the plant.

Nonetheless, the UAW is taking the leaked documents as confirmation of their original allegations regarding outside pressure. In a legal filing submitted to the NLRB this week, the UAW said that recent events may have implicated the Haslam administration "with certain conduct that is the subject of the UAW’s objections in this matter."

But even if the UAW's claims about the documents are true, they're unlikely to help the union's legal case much, said Marquette University labor law professor Paul Secunda.

"The issue is still whether third-party comments about an ongoing union campaign can disrupt the laboratory conditions of that election such that the election needs to be rerun," he said. The UAW had already substantial evidence of third-party pressure in the form of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Just before the election, Corker claimed to have inside knowledge suggesting unionization would be bad for business.

"I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga," he said at the time.

The question is not whether there was any outside pressure, but whether that pressure compromised the election enough so that a new one needs to be held. That case, said Secunda, would still be a very tough sell.

"The problem is that even if you add this new evidence concerning Gov. Haslam actions to Sen. Corker’s statements, you still have a tough legal challenge because, at the end of the day, not many of these election challenges based on third-party statements and action have been successful," he said.