WASHINGTON -- The United Auto Workers union may feel that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) interfered in its election at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga earlier this month, but on Thursday the Tennessee senator argued that he had every right to make his controversial statements as workers were casting their votes.
"Do I think that public officials should be able to say what they think and believe to be true? Absolutely," Corker said at a press briefing hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "As much as I don't like the UAW, I would never say something I didn’t believe to be a hundred percent true."
As the closely watched election got underway, Corker announced publicly on Feb. 13 that he'd been "assured" that if workers turned down the union the plant would get a new production line for an SUV. A Volkswagen official quickly disputed Corker's claim, but union backers have since argued that Corker's statement amounted to coercion and may have swayed votes in a close election.
Late last week, the UAW submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board asking that they set the results aside and issue a new election. The workers had voted 712 to 626 against union representation. Although it's a tough case for the union to make, the board could determine that comments by Corker and other Republican politicians in Tennessee tainted the proceedings and essentially order a do-over.
Corker said such a decision by the board would be an unwelcome "landmark."
Union officials and labor experts have described politicians' involvement in the UAW election as unprecedented. In addition to Corker, the UAW named Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson in its filing seeking to overturn the election results. Watson had said publicly that lawmakers might scrap future tax subsidies for the plant if workers voted in the union. Similarly, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said that a unionized workforce at the plant would prevent Volkswagen suppliers from coming into the state.
Corker said that his statement on the SUV production line was meant to undercut "rumors" spread by UAW to the opposite effect -- that a vote in favor of the union would guarantee the work came to Chattanooga. A UAW spokeswoman declined to comment on Corker's claims.
When asked by a reporter, Corker would not say that his purported knowledge of the SUV production line came directly from Volkswagen executives. Asked if he feels his statement may have actually swayed votes, Corker said he didn't know.
The senator said that the UAW's raw feelings toward him stretch back to the 2008 rescue of the auto industry. Corker fought publicly with the union during the rescue talks and sought to pressure the U.S. auto makers into cutting wages to the level of those in Nissan, Toyota and Honda plants in the country.
"I am probably public enemy number one of the UAW," Corker said.