The resolution of a recent labor dispute involving auto parts manufacturer Johnson Controls, based in Holland, Mich., poses great risks for our state’s economy. By exposing thousands of workers to compulsory unionization practically overnight, this agreement’s impact on West Michigan, and indeed on the state as a whole, could well prove monumental.
Recent labor disruptions at four Johnson plants outside Michigan pressured Johnson to capitulate to United Auto Workers (UAW) demands, putting the company’s Holland plant at the mercy of union organizers. Employees may be pushed into unionization because the company acquiesced in two huge UAW demands regarding so-called "neutrality agreements" and "card checks."
Neutrality agreements are employer pledges to stand silent during union organizing drives. Employer silence guarantees a clear field for unopposed union propaganda and deprives employees of information about potentially adverse consequences they may suffer from unionization.
Card checks involve an employer agreement to recognize a union as the exclusive employee bargaining representative once a majority of employees have signed union authorization cards. These checks bypass the normal legal procedure, which calls for a secret-ballot vote of all affected employees after enough workers "show interest" in unionization by signing authorization cards. However, employees often are misled about the purpose of the cards and may sign them out of peer pressure or to get the organizer off their backs.
Employers usually go along with such tactics because of they fear being targeted with a "corporate campaign," in which the union launches public relations attacks, litigation, and labor disruptions, all aimed at damaging the employer’s reputation among its suppliers, customers and shareholders. Such campaigns try to create a "moral standard" that the employer somehow has failed to meet.
Employee voting on unionization is down across the nation — yet the number of union workers has increased. According to the National Labor Relations Board, unions are holding fewer elections — down to 2,378 in 2001 from 2,896 in 2000 — and winning them only slightly more frequently: 53.6 percent in 2001 compared to 52.7 percent in 2000. Yet the number of union workers increased by 17,000 during the same period. What this means is that some of those 17,000 were not allowed a secret-ballot vote on unionization and were victimized by employer-union agreements like the one at Johnson Controls.
Over time, more developments like those at Johnson Controls could make largely union-free and prosperous areas like West Michigan look more like union-dominated and depressed areas like Flint and Detroit. By imposing mandatory employee dues of just $400 per Johnson Controls employee, the UAW would rake in $2,000,000 per year. This war chest will enable organized labor to forage for additional organizing targets among unsuspecting employers. It also will change the political dynamics in the West Michigan area, since the union hierarchy routinely uses compulsory dues for political candidates and causes it favors, even though many rank-and-file union members have differing loyalties.
Union corporate campaigns and undemocratic, push-button labor deals run roughshod over the rights of employers and employees to fairly and freely make their own decisions about unionization. At the very least, workers should be able to vote by secret ballot for or against unionization of their workplaces.
To guarantee this right, changes in law will be necessary. Such changes could come from the National Labor Relations Board or from the new Congress in 2003. The Michigan Legislature could help in a small way by passing legislation that would make it harder for unions to use their members’ dues money for political causes and for candidates members individually oppose. To that end, model legislation proposed by the Mackinac Center has been introduced in the state legislature.
The point of labor law should not be to help unions win employee representation rights they would otherwise lose, but to give employees the option of choosing between bargaining individually or bargaining collectively with their employers. In a free society, the law should be at least as diligent in preserving individual rights as it is in creating "collective rights."
But as the law stands, unions can limit employees’ access to important information and deny them the right to vote, as a way of gaining representation rights and the power and forced dues that go with them. This should not be the way Michigan workplaces unionize. The precedent set at Johnson Controls is an ominous one for our state.
(Robert P. Hunter, an attorney and former member of the National Labor Relations Board, is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)