When it comes to organizing German-owned facilities in the U.S., the United Auto Workers can't be accused of shyness - or it would seem, transparency. For the past several months, the union, led since early June by its new president, Dennis Williams, has been stepping up its campaign to represent Mercedes-Benz workers in central Alabama. The UAW, still smarting from its election defeat this February at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., is aware that victory is unlikely. To overcome disadvantage, organizers apparently have been resorting to misinformation. They've been telling workers that federal law bars them from discussing pay and working conditions unless they belong to a union.
Under federal law, workers have as much right to leave a union as they do to form one. Yet that principal may not necessarily apply in California. For at least the past year a de facto alliance between the United Farm Workers (UFW) and a state agency, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, has been making it very difficult for employees of a major grower, the Fresno-based Gerawan Farming, to decertify the UFW as their bargaining agent. And the workers are signaling their frustration. On August 26, hundreds of Gerawan workers marched on the board's Visalia regional office to demand a count of a decertification vote held last November. The board's justification for its inaction is that Gerawan broke the law in various ways. Yet there has been no investigation of the UFW-driven allegations.
When does being employed by a contractor also mean being employed by the corporation with whom it contracts? The National Labor Relations Board currently is reviewing this issue in a potential landmark case. If the board rules in favor of a Teamsters local in California, unions everywhere could have a powerful organizing weapon. The union had filed a petition back in July 2013 to represent workers at a San Francisco Bay Area recycling plant. A labor contractor, Leadpoint Business Services, handles hiring, wages and other personnel issues at the plant on behalf of the plant owner, Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) of California Inc. The union wants the board to classify Leadpoint and BFI as a dual employer for collective bargaining purposes.
The National Labor Relations Board has been a model of instability these last half-dozen years. And the drama, though temporarily resolved last July, won't likely end soon. Last Thursday, June 26, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Noel Canning v. NLRB that President Obama exceeded his authority in making three "recess appointments" to the NLRB on January 4, 2012 during a Senate break which, in the eyes of the Court, did not qualify as a recess. "The Senate is in session when it says it is," wrote Justice Stephen Breyer. Yet the ruling was not a full defeat for Obama. By 5-4, the four liberals on the Court, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy (in photo), also ruled against the near-elimination of presidential recess authority and thus undercut a circuit court ruling in January 2013.
An employer presumably sets the rules as to who uses its e-mail accounts and for what purposes. But that presumption might not hold if the users are union organizers. On April 30, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) posted a notice soliciting comments on an October ruling by an Administrative Law Judge, Purple Communications Inc., that an employer has the discretion to deny the use of its e-mail system for organizing. If the NLRB reverses the decision, which is likely given its current 3-2 pro-union majority, it would be handing unions a potent organizing tool, and more broadly, restricting employer property rights. A victory by the Communications Workers of America in this case would overturn a 2007 board decision protecting an employer's right to bar the usage of its e-mail for organizing.
Do college athletes qualify as employees? The nature of labor relations in this country could be seriously altered with a "yes" answer. And the National Labor Relations Board has agreed to consider the question. Last Thursday, April 24, the NLRB announced it would review an appeal by Northwestern University of a ruling by the board's Chicago regional office that NCAA Division I men's football and basketball scholarship athletes at private schools, as "employees," may unionize. A major force in this case, Kain Colter, a recent Northwestern quarterback, argues that since college athletes are pro all but in name, they deserve collective bargaining rights. In its appeal, filed on April 9, the university countered, and with good reason, that the decision ignored key facts.
The United Auto Workers is a union that likes a good fight. But even its leaders recognize a lost cause - for now. This morning the union withdrew its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board challenging a secret ballot election held in mid-February that would have enabled it to represent workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga. Despite having committed VW management to silence via neutrality agreement, the UAW lost by 712 to 626. The union immediately claimed the results were invalid as a result of undue interference by anti-union Tennessee public officials. On February 21, the UAW filed a request with the NLRB to overturn the vote. Yet today it dropped its suit.
It's hard to imagine a blurring of the line between amateur and professional sports more flagrant than the National Labor Relations Board Chicago regional office ruling last Wednesday that Northwestern football players, as "employees," are eligible to unionize. Cheerleaders for the decision include the United Steelworkers and the NFL Players Association. This is to be expected. Unions envision more members, dues and bargaining power. Though the NLRB decision applies only to athletes on scholarship at private institutions, only the naïve would believe it won't influence practices at state schools - or the willingness of unions to organize players at either.
A fair election campaign operates on the principle of a "level playing field" - while neither side is guaranteed victory, each should have an equal opportunity to state its case. The National Labor Relations Board has an unusual interpretation. On February 5, the NLRB reissued a rule that would curtail the ability of nonunion employers and employees to oppose union organizing drives. This 'quickie' or 'ambush' election rule, is a near rewrite of its 2011 rule change that briefly made it onto the books before being struck down on procedural grounds by a federal court in May 2012. Here, as before, the allowable time frame for opponents of a union drive to express their views would be reduced from 42 days to as few as 10 days.
By any reasonable assessment, the odds are against the United Auto Workers. But the union is going ahead anyway with its effort to nullify a vote by Volkswagen assembly plant workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. to reject UAW representation. On Friday, February 21, only hours before expiration of the seven-day deadline, the union filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to overturn the election, decided by a 712-to-626 margin. The outcome was a bitter pill to swallow. A victory would have served as a springboard for organizing drives at foreign-owned auto plants elsewhere in the South.