WASHINGTON — Experts in labor law say Sen. Bob Corker and other Tennessee Republican officials made statements that justify setting aside the recent union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and ordering a new one.
And the National Labor Relations Board, which is reviewing a complaint filed by the United Auto Workers, cites in its own legal manual numerous examples of improper outside interference, including ones similar to the circumstances in this case.
Volkswagen workers voted 712-626 on Feb. 14 against joining the UAW. The union filed a complaint with the NLRB a week later seeking a new vote.
One of those who feels the UAW could get its way is William B. Gould IV, chairman of the NLRB during the administration of former President Bill Clinton and now a law professor emeritus at Stanford University.
"I think the union has a very strong case," Gould said in an interview.
Corker's comments in particular, he said, "interfered with a free and fair election."
The Tennessee senator dropped what some called a "bombshell" during the week of the vote by saying Volkswagen was likely to add production facilities for sport utility vehicles in Chattanooga if workers rejected the union. And some officials warned that the plant might lose economic incentives provided by the state if the union prevailed.
Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, has since warned the NLRB against trying to "muzzle" elected officials with its ruling.
He continued to defend his remarks Friday, saying in an interview, "When I see something in the community, I am going to stand up and express my opinion."
Volkswagen has disavowed Corker's statements about the SUV production line.
An NLRB manual called "An Outline of Law and Procedure in Representation Cases," devotes 60 of its 445 pages to discussing interference with union elections. It says union votes "must take place" in laboratory-like conditions where outside factors are not unduly influencing workers.
It also says the interference can come from third parties, examples of which, it said, can be anyone from members of a police force to "community leaders."
Fred Feinstein, a former general counsel of the NLRB who sits on the UAW's Public Review Board, said that once the union shows the statements of various Tennessee officials "actually took place then I think they have a good case."
As for Corker's warning about muzzling public officials, Feinstein said, "The NLRB has no jurisdiction over Senator Corker." He added, "Senator Corker can say those things again if he wants."
But the board does have authority, Feinstein said, to decide if the senator's statements helped "undermine the laboratory conditions" in which the Feb. 14 vote was supposed to take place.
"It's unusual for a United States senator to be speaking out in the middle (of a union election), added Laura Cooper, a specialist on labor law at the University of Minnesota. "I certainly haven't heard of that."
First Amendment concerns "are not a barrier," she said, when the NLRB considers whether certain statements affected the election.
Other labor law experts see little reason for union optimism.
"It is highly unprecedented in NLRB law for statements (like Corker's) to lead to a new election," said Doreen Davis of the global law firm Jones Day.
Katherine Stone, an expert on labor law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said a key to the case is where Corker was getting his information.
"I assume he had some basis for it," she said.
If the information came from inside the company, she said, the NLRB could find the union suffered unfair labor practices as well as "that laboratory conditions were destroyed."
She added, "The NLRB has a lot to consider here."
If Corker just said it to influence the election without having firm knowledge, she said, "then we could be looking at new ground here."