Twenty people, primarily Tennessee Republican officials and their staff members, were subpoenaed by the United Auto Workers Wednesday as part of the union's effort to reverse an organizing election at a Chattanooga Volkswagen plant it lost in February. The union said their testimony was needed to prove their claim to the National Labor Relations Board that the Republicans improperly interfered with the election.
The individuals subpoenaed include Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Gov. Bill Haslam and Grover Norquist, president of the conservative nonprofit group Americans for Tax Reform. The NLRB hearing at which they are being called to testify is set for April 21.
NLRB rules allow for parties in a complaint to issue subpoenas, though enforcing them can be difficult. An order from a federal court would be needed and the subjects of the subpoenas would be allowed to contest them, a potentially very lengthy process.
"The purpose of the NLRB's investigation is to determine the truth concerning the third-party interference in the February election at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant. The NLRB's rules call for the use of subpoenas as part of this truth-seeking exercise," said UAW President Bob King.
Corker's staff said they were weighing their options: "After a stinging defeat, rather than respect the workers’ decision, the UAW is trying to create a sideshow and we've referred this matter to legal counsel. We hope other people who might be inclined to consider the UAW will take this development as a cautionary tale," said Todd Womack, Corker's chief of staff. Womack was among the 20 who were subpoenaed.
UAW lost its effort to unionize the Chattanooga plant when the workers voted 712-626 against collective bargaining after a three-day election concluding Feb. 20. It was a high-profile loss and a surprising one. VW had actually been cooperating with UAW. It required workers to attend mandatory meetings where union organizers could speak to them. Groups opposed to unionization were barred from the facility.
A major issue in the Chattanooga workers' vote was whether unionization would result in the plant expanding production. VW officials, under pressure from their German workers' union, had publicly indicated that it was a necessary step. But Corker issued a statement during the vote claiming the opposite.
"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," Corker said on Feb. 18. VW officials disputed Corker's claims, saying that there was "no connection" between expansion decision and the workers' vote.
Corker stood by his claim and subsequently indicated that the source was an outside consultant working with Volkswagen.
After its loss, UAW seized on that comment and other actions by state Republican lawmakers, claiming that they had "tainted" the vote. The union has called on the NLRB to void the election and order a new one.
Ironically, UAW officials had opposed allowing the plant workers to vote in the first place. They wanted to VW to unionize the plant itself based on their claim that they had gotten a majority of workers to sign pro-union cards.
Some workers complained to the NLRB that the UAW used deceptive practices to get the card signatures. The board threw out the complaint, saying that while there was evidence that the union used deception, it didn't matter because VW refused and instead held an NLRB-monitored vote.
The case is unusual in that the UAW is calling on the NLRB to throw out the election based on the actions of people who were not directly involved in it. Most such efforts involve the union or management allegedly engaging in fraud. Third-party inference claims are extremely rare. Corker has warned that if the NLRB accepts the union's argument, it could have consequences for the First Amendment.