The United Autoworkers Union lost a close, extremely important election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee a few months ago. Had the UAW won, its victory would have marked the first time a union represents employees of an auto manufacturer in the southern United States. Riding the momentum from the close election, the UAW opened Local 42 and is encouraging VW workers to voluntarily join the UAW. If successful, the UAW will seek to effectively sidestep the NLRB sanctioned secret ballot election process and represent the workers via card check.
“We’ve had ongoing discussions with Volkswagen and have arrived at a consensus with the company,” Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, said in a statement about the union’s latest move. “Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local.”
Volkswagen and the UAW have partnered in trying to get VW workers to join the union. The two entered into a neutrality agreement and the UAW tried to organize Chattanooga VW workers via card check in the past, but failed to gain a majority of workers’ signatures; some workers even filed charges with the NLRB accusing the union of using misleading and bullying tactics to gain a majority of the workers’ signatures. The UAW then consented to a secret ballot election, and lost that, too despite VW giving the union unfettered access to its facilities and employees for the union to campaign in favor of unionization.
This third attempt may result in the VW workers finally getting a union. Workers joining Local 42 will receive many of the benefits of belonging to a union but won’t suffer any of the detriments. They will also be given the opportunity to get comfortable with unionization and view the union as partner instead of a bunch of people from Detroit who are going to change their company. Employees won’t pay dues, won’t be restricted by seniority, won’t be prohibited from dealing directly with their supervisors, but they will receive UAW clothing, invites to picnics, and reduced cost tickets to amusement parks and sporting events. VW could also extend Weingarten rights to workers and allow the union to accompany workers during disciplinary investigation meetings. VW workers who want to participate in these perks will need to sign an authorization card, and with enough signatures, the UAW will represent all workers at VW through card check – at which time the detriments of unionization will kick in.
The typical union worker now is more likely to be an educator, office worker, or food or service industry employee rather than a construction worker, autoworker, or electrical mechanic. Until recently, the unionization rate was far higher in the private sector than in the public sector. “The basic structure of the labor union movement has changed, reflecting changes in the economy,” said Ross Barker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “Manufacturing is a diminishing segment of the economy. Also, a lot of the manufacturing that’s being done today is done non-union.” Professor Barker does not see the role of unions diminishing. “I just think the colors of the collars are changing,” he said.
For proof, the American Federal of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has succeeded in recruiting more than 90,000 new members this year through grassroots organizing by teams of trained “volunteer members organizers” (VMOs). AFSCME now has 1.6 million members, making it one of the largest labor unions in the United States. Despite the recent setback to public unions and agency fees in Harris v. Quinn, home health workers made up 20,000 of the 90,000 members recently organized.
Lee Saunders, AFSCME President, has Republican governors in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania in his crosshairs. According to him, those governors attacked public sector collective bargaining, wages, work rules, and pension security. As the fall elections approach, Saunders plans to mobilize his members and dedicate them to unseating Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich, both of whom are seeking re-election in November.
An Illinois telephone company suspended a worker after he grabbed his crotch in a move obviously intended for a female non-union employee to see. According to the company, the female employee was upset by the incident, and the act was a form of sexual harassment, an implied threat of violence, and an indicator of future behavior by the striker.
The NLRB Administrative Judge said that while the gesture was obscene and likely did occur as the female had reported, it was an isolated incident and did not constitute sexual harassment that would justify suspending the striker. The judge opined, “while his gesture was totally uncalled for, and very unpleasant, it is difficult to see how it could have been perceived as an implied threat of violence or even future misconduct (whatever that means) for have discouraged [the female] from continuing to report to work during the strike.
A Domino’s Pizza franchisee violated the National Labor Relations Act by maintaining an arbitration agreement barring workers from bringing class claims, despite the argument that an opt-out provision set the agreement apart from the one in D.R. Horton that did not have opt-out option. According to the NLRB Administrative Law Judge, the agreement that required workers to give up any rights to pursue class or collective actions to resolve employment-related disputes violated the Act because it only gave employees 30 days to decide whether to sign the agreement. The judge determined that forcing employees to decide whether to waive NLRA-protected rights within 30 days “creates a smokescreen.” The judge did not, unfortunately, opine on how many days is sufficient to give employees time to decide whether to sign an arbitration agreement.
Personnel expenses account for $200 million of the Metropolitan Opera’s $327 million budget. The Met wants to reduce labor costs by 16% by getting the union to accept modern-day, common sense work rules and less generous pension and health benefits. Orchestra members reportedly make $200,000 per year on average and get 16 weeks off with pay. The base pay for chorus members, who also make on average $200,000, covers four performances a week. The members are paid extra for rehearsals, even if they haven’t sung in performances. They also earn overtime for any opera longer than four hours, which has caused the Met to forego performing many popular operas because they lasted too long.
The hard part for the Met will be getting the union to agree to those changes. According to the union, the Met overspends on set construction and decorations and should seek cost reductions in those areas before targeting employee pay and benefits. As one commentator said, “only unions would complain that an opera manager is spending too much on opera and not enough on overtime pay and pension benefits.”
Liberty Toyota factually told its Illinois employees that their Florida counterparts were still waiting for a union contract three years after voting for union representation. According to the NLRB, this factual statement “effectively communicated” that if the Illinois employees voted in favor of the International Association of Machinists union, that they too would suffer years of delay and stagnation.
A dealership executive stated that any negotiations with the Illinois union would “start from scratch…everything goes to zero.” This factual statement has been used in thousands of union avoidance campaigns across the country. Only now is the NLRB alleging that such a statement is unlawful. According to the Board, the employer was not only warning of uncertainties in labor-management negotiations, but was threatening employees with a loss of their existing benefits.
While I am often surprised at the recent decisions coming from the NLRB, this one is appalling. Under the National Labor Relations Act, when a union is certified as the employees’ exclusive bargaining agent, all terms and conditions of employment are subject to negotiation. Employees’ current terms and conditions are not the starting point, or floor, of negotiating. Employees truly could end up with worse, better, or the same terms and conditions of employment after the collective bargaining agreement is ratified. For the Board to now claim that companies are not allowed to educate their workforce about this well-known maxim of collective bargaining is deplorable.
Managers at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Edinboro, Pennsylvania wanted to reward hard working employees. So they boosted the wages of two dozen high-performing employees above their union rates. This upset the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23 union that represents the employees. The union argued the pay increased violated their contract and took Giant Eagle to court and forced it to rescind the raises. According to the union, the raises upended the union’s seniority system by allowing junior employees to make more money than those with more seniority. Local 23 wanted uniform pay scales, even if it meant cutting some of their members’ wages.