Bob King's First Amendment

You have the right to hear what they want you to hear. You have the right to join them...

In a speech that careened from apologetic to apocalyptic before settling on anti-democratic, incoming UAW President Bob King addressed more of his ambitions for the union. Optimists who hope for a more business-savvy UAW will focus on the first half, in which he acknowledged some mistakes, in particular the “Jobs Banks” that kept laid-off autoworkers on company payrolls at nearly full salary, but realists will quickly recognize that the second half, in which King attempted to reclaim the union’s old economic and political clout, is what really matters.

Among other things, the UAW now claims the right to determine what employers may or may not say about the UAW. King intends to do this through the creation of “Principles for Fair Union Elections” that they will pressure non-union automakers in the US to sign. These guidelines will prohibit “derogatory, insulting, or untruthful” statements. King declined to say whether or not the guidelines will allow employers to call attention to the UAW’s role in bankrupting two out of three domestic carmakers. King promises that the UAW will respect union elections as long as its rules are followed.

At first blush this might seem like a concession. Up until now the UAW, along with nearly the entire union movement, has been pressing for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have replaced the secret-ballot vote with the counting of signed cards as the method for determining whether or not a union had the support of a group of workers. This “card-check” process would have left workers vulnerable to the use of intimidation by union organizers. King seems to be backing down from this, but his acceptance of secret-ballot votes comes at a steep price: employers who are muzzled by the UAW’s rules.

King envisions that the alternative to restoring the unions past power is "an Earth laid waste for the benefit and profit of a privileged few who can dominate not only the marketplace but also the political process." He justifies his grossly shrunken version of essential human rights by presuming that workers can only exercise their rights through unions like the one he now leads: "The right to organize unions is the First Amendment for workers." Strip away the hyperbole and what's left is institutional self-centeredness. The only right that matters is the right to join us!

This is a very troubling posture for King and the UAW to take, one that reveals a very low regard for core democratic values. In a free society employers must always retain the right to decide what their message to workers will be, short of explicit calls for violence or outright slander. It is not up to union official to define where that line is. And workers also ought to have the full range of First Amendment rights — to join a union, to not join a union, to contribute to causes they believe in, to withhold support from causes they don’t believe in, and to hear speech that is not screened by union officials first.