Democrats in the U.S. House on Wednesday opened an "inquiry" into whether Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's administration might have violated federal labor law by attempting to tie state incentives for expansion of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant to the outcome of an election over representation by the United Auto Workers union.
The probe is yet another chapter in the ongoing debate over whether Republican officials, including Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, may have interfered in the February election in which workers voted 712-626 to reject the UAW, which was attempting to organize the employees and set up a German-style "works council" at the plant.
After the vote, the UAW challenged the outcome of the vote, citing "outside interference" by the Republican elected officials, and asked the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the results and order a new election.
Since then, reports from Nashville have indicated that the Haslam administration had offered a $300 million incentive package to Volkswagen to entice the company to build a new sport utility vehicle in Chattanooga, but pegged the offer on a satisfactory outcome of the effort to set up a union works council at the plant.
Democratic Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee; and John Tierney, D-Mass., ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee, sent a letter to Haslam "seeking more information about whether any Tennessee state officials conditioned, or threatened to condition, state aid to Volkswagen on the outcome of workers' efforts to establish a union and/or a works council at the Chattanooga plant," according to a news release from the Democrats on the Education and Workforce Committee.
"Recently released documents suggest that Tennessee state officials made the availability of state aid for expanding the Volkswagen plant -- a mix of cash grants and tax incentives -- contingent upon the workers' decision not to seek union representation," the release said. "Such state-level conditioning may interfere with employees' rights to organize and collectively bargain, as guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act. Federal courts have recognized that actions by other governments to disrupt the balance in labor relations established by the NLRA are preempted by federal law.
"The workers trying to organize at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga saw their fundamental labor rights attacked from the get-go," said Miller and Tierney. "Both before and during the vote on whether or not to unionize, third parties made public comments that were clearly meant to sabotage a fair election."
A representative with the state's economic and development department declined to comment on the letter. A spokesperson with the governor's office could not be reached for comment.