A “company union” seems like a misnomer. Unions are supposed to be promoting the expressed interests of employees, not employers. Too often, the reality is that the collective bargaining process leads to employer-union backroom deals that leave workers in the lurch. Such arrangements also most likely are illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act. Five employees of Freightliner LLC, a Portland, Ore.-based commercial-vehicle manufacturer, think they’ve got a strong case that they and fellow workers at company plants in Gastonia, Mount Holly and Cleveland, N.C. got the shaft. And they’ve decided to take action.
On January 24, two of the workers, Katherine Ivey and Tim Cochrane, flanked by attorneys from the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, announced they had filed a class-action civil RICO suit in U.S. District Court against the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Freightliner, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler-Chrysler. For symbolic effect, they held the announcement in Detroit, right outside UAW headquarters.
In all, the company union agreement applied to five Freightliner facilities – the three aforementioned ones, plus two others in the Carolinas. Among the latter pair, one already has been the focus of a suit. Right to Work attorneys in 2003 filed a federal complaint on behalf of two workers at the Gaffney, S.C. assembly plant. The National Labor Relations Board, after extensive review, subsequently announced last August that it would sue the union and Freightliner for unlawfully blocking a scheduled wage increase. About 70 percent of the workers at the Gaffney plant had signed a petition stating they rejected union affiliation and preferred negotiating directly with the company. The other site, in High Point, N.C., involved an alleged deal between the UAW and a Freightliner subsidiary, Thomas Built Buses. Right to Work attorneys decided against filing suit in that case because circumstances had made it unnecessary.
Workers in the new RICO suit note that federal law bars employers from providing “things of value” to unions. They are alleging the corporation and the UAW agreed to: limit wages; cancel an employee profit-sharing bonus; increase worker contributions to health care costs; and deny employees the right to hold secret-ballot elections over whether to unionize. As evidence, the employees are pointing to the contents of a formerly secret document, “Preconditions to Card Check Procedure.” In return for union concessions, the document reportedly states, Freightliner agreed to provide organizing assistance. The company in return gave UAW organizers free reign, allowing them to hold compulsory meetings for non-union employees on the company clock. The card-check agreement bound Freightliner to recognize the union if and when organizers presented the requisite number of signed authorization cards. All too often in such situations, such cards are signed under duress, and after a blitz of misleading information. Then they are counted as “votes” in favor of unionization. Once signed, those cards become difficult to revoke.
The dissenting employees in the Gastonia, Mount Holly and Cleveland cases are seeking treble damages for all dues paid and earnings lost. Their attorneys believe a victory here is essential to promoting worker freedom. “To get help in coercing thousands of workers into union ranks and to obtain at least $1 million in annual dues revenues, UAW officials sold out the very workers they sought to represent,” said National Right to Work Legal Foundation Vice President Stefan Gleason. “It takes tremendous courage for workers to stand up to pressure from both their employer and the union brass.” (U.S. Newswire, 1/24).