Following a closely watched representation election at an automotive assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the United Auto Workers (“UAW”), the union seeking to represent employees at the facility that suffered a stinging defeat in the election, has filed novel objections to the election with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”). The objections raise interesting and timely concerns that may prove to become repeat issues in the ever-evolving social, political and technological fabric of the American worksite.
On February 14, 2014, employees at the Chattanooga facility voted, by a count of 713-626, against representation by the UAW. Seven days later, the union complained that improper conduct interfered with and affected the election results, and filed objections with the Board seeking to overturn the election result and forcing a new vote. Just as the election itself drew close attention because of its national significance for businesses and organized labor, the UAW’s objections will also likely draw close attention because of the novel and significant issues they raise and the political battle that has brewed over this organizing campaign.
The UAW based their objections on the claim that comments by several prominent national and Tennessee politicians before the vote interfered with employee free choice and tainted the final result. Specifically, the UAW has contended that: 1) certain state officials, including Governor Bill Haslam, made widely documented threats that state tax incentives and other financial benefits would be withheld from the employer and its employees if they voted for unionization, and 2) United States Senator Bob Corker made public statements that if employees voted against the union, they would be rewarded with a new SUV production line at the Chattanooga facility. However – and what makes this situation novel – the UAW union did not allege that the employer, which had entered into a neutrality agreement with the union and in some ways appeared to desire unionization, supported or otherwise provoked these statements. The employer’s neutrality agreement and apparent support for the union has itself become a source of controversy, as employees at the facility have contended, and continue to assert, that the employer is attempting to force unionization on employees who do not want it.
There is little applicable legal precedent for the UAW’s claims that conduct not engaged in by the employer can violate the National Labor Relations Act and support valid objections to a representation election. Regardless, the objections have focused attention on questions about the power of public officials to impact votes in an election – focus likely to grow in this time of incredible access to information. In an era in which union related matters are becoming increasingly politicized and debated over social media outlets to which employees have easy access, it was inevitable that these kinds of issues would eventually find their way to the NLRB. While it will surprise some if the NLRB upholds the UAW’s objections, it likely would not prompt the same kind of surprise if the current Board, which has recently issued decisions and proposed rules many view as openly seeking to favor unions, takes the opportunity to fashion new guidelines recognizing that influences on votes in representation elections are being delivered in new ways and by new sources. Ultimately, regardless of what happens with the specific objections, the final election result likely will mark a beginning, not an end, to another chapter of the ongoing evolution of the NLRB, and its development will remain a matter of significant interest to many employers.