Three workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board Wednesday saying it must prevent the German auto company from providing any further assistance to the United Auto Workers in its efforts to organize the workers. The complaint is a reaction to the UAW's own request to the board that it order a revote of an organizing election at the Chattanooga facility that the union lost last month.
The VW workers allege that a prior "neutrality" agreement between the company and UAW regarding the election violated the National Labor Relations Act because the union gave "things of value" in exchange for the company making it easier to organize its Chattanooga workers. Essentially, the complaint argues that the union bribed the company by offering it favorable terms for an eventual contract — a situation that would benefit the union leaders and the company, but not the workers.
The argument is essentially the same as the one that was advanced in Unite Here v. Mulhall, a case the Supreme Court initially took up last year, only to drop in December stating that it was "improvidently granted." Legal analysts had earlier noted that it was not clear that the plaintiffs had the proper standing to bring the case to the high court.
The Unite Here v. Mulhall case had been closely watched by labor law experts since these kind "top-down" organizing campaigns where the union first works out a deal with management and only later tries to get the workers on board are a fairly common tactic with Big Labor. Had the justices ruled that neutrality agreements violated the NLRA, it would have been a major blow to organized labor.
National Right to Work Legal Foundation spokesman Anthony Riedel told the Washington Examiner that a lower court ruling upholding the argument in Mulhall was still in effect.
"That case concluded with a win at the 11th Circuit Appeals Court. The Supreme Court declined to rule one way or another on it, but they didn't overturn the ruling that organizing assistance can be an illegal thing of value under [NLRA Section] 302. This legal circuit [the 6th] has not yet directly ruled on the issue," Riedel said. The foundation is representing the three workers in the Chattanooga case.
Riedel added that the complaint was not an effort to get the issue in Mulhall before the Supreme Court again "but we would certainly welcome the opportunity if it did happen."
In a statement, UAW President Bob King said:
The lawsuit filed by the National Right to Work Legal [Defense] Foundation is baseless. At the time it negotiated its Election Agreement with Volkswagen Group of America, the UAW had already established for the Company that it was the majority representative of hourly Volkswagen employees, on the lawful basis of authorization cards signed by a majority of such employees. Moreover, even if the UAW had not demonstrated this status, the UAW's Election Agreement with Volkswagen Group of America would still be lawful, just like many other neutrality agreements the UAW and other unions have negotiated with employers throughout the United States.
A spokesman for the NLRB declined to comment.
VW agreed to the union vote in large part because because it was under pressure from its German union, IG Metall, to unionize the plant. In January, UAW and VW officials signed a 22-page "agreement for a representation election" for the Chattanooga plant's 1,550 workers. The company agreed to: not oppose the organizing bid; provide the UAW with the names and home addresses of the workers; allow union officials -- but no one else -- access to the plant to lobby workers; and require workers attend mandatory meetings where they would hear from union organizers.
In exchange, UAW agreed to a no-strike clause in any prospective contract as well pledging to help maintain the "cost advantages and other competitive advantages that VW enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States." Many union critics said that was proof the union would not aggressively represent the workers' interests and just wanted their member dues. UAW officials said the section was just boilerplate rhetoric about working with the company.
Despite VW's assistance, the plant's 1,550 eligible workers rejected the UAW in a 712-626 vote concluded on Feb. 14. The union subsequently requested the NLRB overturn the election and order a new one on the grounds that comments by state Republican lawmakers, particularly Sen. Bob Corker, corrupted the election. The UAW's complaint is still pending before the NLRB.
Ironically, the UAW had opposed allowing the Chattanooga workers to vote at all. As King's statement indicates, it wanted VW to recognize the union based on its claim that it could show majority support through employee-signed cards. Some VW workers filed a complaint with the NLRB last year claiming the union used fraudulent practices to obtain the cards. The NLRB dismissed the complaint in January despite finding there was some evidence of fraud. The board stated that fraudulently claiming majority support was not itself a NLRA violation. It is only a violation if the fraud is successful. Since VW rejected the union's card check bid, there was no case.
The workers' Wednesday complaint notes that the neutrality agreement between UAW and VW was never rescinded and that the union will probably request the same circumstances should the NLRB agree to order a re-vote.
On Tuesday, the NLRB agreed to let five VW workers intervene in the UAW's election complaint, citing the unusual circumstances regarding the case. The UAW denounced the decision as an "outrage," saying that the five are "masquerading as legitimate worker representatives."