There was a time when union supporters in this state were strong and confident sorts who were not easily deterred. As the old song went: "When the union’s inspiration through the workers blood shall run, there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun." Michigan unionists were the ones who took over a GM plant in Flint and occupied it until the company relented and recognized the UAW. One could question the legitimacy of that action, but there’s no denying that the men who did it believed in the union cause.
Nowadays it seems that union supporters are a bit more easily spooked. Otherwise there would be no need for legislation like the Worker Freedom Act in the Michigan Legislature.
Under guidelines set up by the National Labor Relations Board, prior to a unionization vote employers are permitted to require employees to attend meetings where the employer can make its case for rejecting union representation. The meetings must be held during regular work time, and employees must be paid for the time. During these "captive audience" meetings the employer must still avoid making threats or promises, and must also avoid improper interrogation. Along with these legal limits there are some practical limitations as well: too many meetings will disrupt operations, an overly long presentation will cost money, a dull lecture will persuade nobody, and harsh conditions (too long, too dull, no bathroom breaks) will only breed resentment.
House Bill 4316 would effectively prohibit captive audience meetings in Michigan, a prohibition which would put the state on a collision course with the NLRB, which governs private-sector labor relations.
There are reasonable grounds to question the wisdom of the captive audience meeting. One might wonder what an employer would gain from having an employee sit through a meeting when he has no interest in anything that might be said. But the captive audience meeting exists for a reason. In the run up to a vote, the employer cannot reach out beyond the workplace to get its message to workers, while the union can contact workers outside of the workplace and sometimes within the workplace as well. The captive audience meeting evens things up a bit by ensuring that the employer will have a chance to explain his or her point of view.
The need to prevent workers from hearing anti-union messages seems odd in the light of Michigan’s history of strong union support. One might wonder how union support among workers has weakened to the point where it could wilt after a few lectures from the boss. But the disconnect between union officials and workers has been growing for some time. Union membership as a percentage of the workforce has been dropping for decades, and clear majorities of union members oppose union officials on a range of issues, including the current union drive for card-check certification.
If this act were passed — it has already made it out of the House Labor Committee — it would do little to aid the state’s declining unions in the longer term. The federal courts are virtually guaranteed to knock it down. One may question the decision to allow captive audience meetings, but the fact remains that employers are allowed to hold them under the rulings of the National Labor Relations Board, whose authority over labor relations trumps state law. It might not even help that much in the short term; the NLRB is very likely to ask for and get an injunction preventing the state from enforcing this law until the courts make a final decision.
But passage of this bill would certainly signal to employers that the state’s lawmakers are determined to protect unions by any method possible, fair or foul, wise or ill-advised. And the legal process of having the law overturned could drag on for months or even years. During that time uncertainty over the lawsuit might make employers even more wary about locating in Michigan.
Seventy years ago men and women braved guards and police, bullets and tear gas to hold on to a GM plant in Flint. Today union lobbyists scramble to prevent workers from having to hear an anti-union message lest their support crumble. And that, in a nutshell, is why the union movement is losing members in Michigan and across the country.
Paul Kersey is senior labor policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.