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UAW's Volkswagen case heads to NLRB hearing as politicians object

A contentious effort to unionize a foreign brand's automobile factory is scheduled to reach a courtroom Monday, and the case appears far from resolution.

A U.S. senator, the Tennessee governor and several state lawmakers are fighting subpoenas served by the United Automobile Workers union ordering them to appear in court with documents related to the failed vote at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The UAW alleges that the conservative politicians intimidated workers at the plant, leading a 53% majority to vote in February against becoming a union shop. The union lost even though Volkswagen remained neutral. The German automaker supports unions at all of its other major factories.

The union wants to stage a new vote. It views the situation as an important test case to figure out how to rebuild its slipping membership with workers from the historically anti-union South, where several carmakers have set up shop in the last decade or so. 

The lawmakers have sought to ensure the state’s business-friendly image is preserved. They have rejected the claim that what they said this winter amounted to threats.

An administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board was scheduled to begin hearing the UAW’s appeal Monday at the Hamilton County Courthouse. But whether the judge will enforce the subpoenas or even start the hearing as planned remains unclear.

The results of the battle could affect a decision expected soon on whether Volkswagen starts producing a second vehicle in Tennessee. The UAW alleges that state lawmakers threatened to pull subsidies for Volkswagen if the factory became unionized. Workers feared job cuts and rejected the opportunity to join the union, the UAW has argued.

"The taxpayers of Tennessee reached out to Volkswagen and welcomed them to our state and our community," House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said in one of the controversial remarks. "We are glad they are here. But that is not a green light to help force a union into the workplace. That was not part of the deal."

McCormick was one of at least 10 state officials, including Gov. Bill Haslam, to be issued subpoenas. Writing for the group, Atty. Gen. Robert Cooper Jr. called the summons overly broad, abusive and disruptive.

In a legal filing seeking to have the subpoenas dismissed, he wrote that they “are far beyond what is necessary or appropriate for the union to obtain evidence to support its objections.”

If not revoked by the NLRB, the orders will “chill legitimate public debate, effectively silence any opposing views, and distract the NLRB from the fact that the union lost an election it controlled in virtually every facet, except the result,” the attorney general wrote.

Haslam told reporters last week that he wouldn't show up to court Monday. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he would be in Ukraine and Moldova, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

Corker's chief of staff, Todd Womack, told The Times on Sunday: "Everyone understands that after a clear defeat, the UAW is trying to create a sideshow, so we have filed a motion to revoke these baseless subpoenas. Neither Sen. Corker nor his staff will attend the hearing on Monday.”

The UAW already lost an early round in the case, when an NLRB appeals panel said it would uphold an order allowing anti-union employees at the plant to be involved in the case alongside attorneys from a national right-to-work group.

The National Right to Work Foundation has said it was shameful that the UAW was trying to silence the voices of affected workers.

The anti-union workers said they wanted to intervene because they believed Volkswagen wouldn’t adequately represent their concerns in front of the NLRB.

The UAW countered that it was trying to keep out “groups with shadowy funding that are masquerading as legitimate worker representatives.”

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