The Return of the Company Union

Why would the UAW agree to declaw itself? Why would the NLRB let them?

In a decision handed down last week involving employees of auto supplier Dana in St Johns, Mich., the National Labor Relations Board essentially made it easier to create company unions. That unions would actually go along with such a thing says a lot about where the union movement (or maybe we should call it the union establishment?) is headed.

What happened in a nutshell is this. The UAW represents workers at some Dana facilities, but would like to organize more. In order to make it easier to organize more plants, the UAW reached an agreement with the company: The UAW got card-check certification, meaning the company waives workers' right to a secret ballot vote and will instead recognize the UAW as the worker representative when the UAW presents them with cards signed by a majority of employees. Without a secret-ballot vote, the card-check is a very unreliable method for determining union support. Signed cards may represent genuine worker interest in unionization, but they may also be procured through deception or intimidation.

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(The NLRB's decision is here.)

But what's really surprising is what the UAW gave up in exchange for easy recognition. They agreed, before they had the right to represent any new employees, that they would negotiate a four- or five-year contract, that they would maintain the company's plans to reduce benefit costs, that they would allow mandatory overtime, and that the union would not call a strike. These concessions will tie the union's hands in the event they win the right to represent any more workers at Dana.

A weakened union that is overly compliant with the company's priorities is what used to be known as a "company union," and unionists used to treat them with suspicion, if not contempt. But that was when the union movement was a genuine worker movement.

The UAW is apparently willing to declaw itself in the workplace, and a fairly pro-labor NLRB is willing to stand aside, as long as the union has an easier path to representation rights — and to union dues. Note that the agreement with Dana has no effect on the union's political ambitions, only on its ability to represent its members in the workplace.

Fortunately, Dana's St Johns employees have managed to avoid the embrace of an enervated UAW themselves, but by allowing this arrangement to go on at workplaces in Michigan and throughout the country, the NLRB is aiding the creation of company unions that depend on company support to win bargaining rights. These company unions will be weak representatives in the workplace, but be free to redirect union dues into union politics. Is this really what workers need?

(A tip of the hat to Labor Union Report.)