(Reuters) - The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has decided that anti-union Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) workers can defend the results of a mid-February union election that the United Auto Workers lost at a Chattanooga, Tennessee VW plant.
The NLRB's unusual ruling on Monday gives anti-UAW groups, such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and Southern Momentum, more leverage in the fight over unionizing the plant.
The ruling means that if the NLRB holds a hearing on the dispute, the anti-UAW workers may participate and make their case, along with the UAW. No hearing has been scheduled, though labor lawyers have said there likely will be one.
The UAW is trying to expand into the American South among non-union, foreign-owned auto plants. But its effort last month collided with opposition from senior Tennessee Republican politicians, such as U.S. Senator Bob Corker and Governor Bill Haslam, as well as outside interest groups, including one from Washington headed by small-government crusader Grover Norquist.
The UAW lost its effort to organize the VW plant when workers voted 712-626 not to join the union. It then asked the NLRB to set aside the results of the election, arguing that outside parties compromised the process.
The Chattanooga dispute is unusual in several ways. VW remained technically neutral during the UAW campaign, though the German company gave the union access to its facilities during the days leading up to the election. Employers often oppose union campaigns. The automaker also said it would not defend election results before the board.
The NLRB's regional office in Atlanta is handling the UAW's challenge to the election. That office is investigating whether outside groups interfered in the election process. Its findings can be appealed to the five-member NLRB board in Washington.
Former NLRB General Counsel Fred Feinstein said in an interview on Monday that the regional office's determination in the case "is a couple of months off. And it could take a lot longer than that."
Reporting by Amanda Becker and Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Richard Chang