Last May, eight members of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, all representing districts in the Lansing area, signed and mailed a letter encouraging employees at a Keykert USA Inc. facility in Webberville to unionize with the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the process, they misinterpreted labor law, misled workers into believing the Board endorses unionization, and may have harmed the state's business climate.

The letter, printed on Ingham County letterhead and addressed to "Workers at Keykert" called upon Keykert management to "remain neutral, allowing you, the workers, to make your decision in a fair and free atmosphere."

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Keykert's management is under no such obligation, either legally or morally. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) places certain limits on how employers can respond to union campaigns. Employers may not retaliate against union supporters, or use threats or promises to sway workers into voting against the union. But employers are allowed to oppose unionization, and express their concerns to their employees.

But beyond the terms of the NLRA, the signers of the letter seem to have a problem with open debate. In order to make a fair and free-not to mention fully informed-decision, Keykert workers deserve an opportunity to hear from all interested parties. That includes Keykert management. The eight signers of the letter demonstrate a disappointing lack of regard for the rights of managers, and for the intelligence of employees, when they imply that by weighing in on the subject of union representation, Keykert management subverts employee rights.

As written, the letter to Keykert employees leaves workers with the impression that the Board of Commissioners had passed a resolution supporting union representation at Keykert. In a letter he sent out later that month Commissioner Randy Schafer (a non-signer) protested that, "the letter gives the impression that the Board of Commissioners endorses the union's viewpoint when, in fact, the Board has never voted on, does not vote on, nor even discusses such issues."

Indeed, the Commissioners' action is no less wrong than if they had put together a letter to Keykert workers stating that they, the Commissioners, were opposed to the move to unionize, and that they wanted the workers to know that if they voted against the move, they would do so with the support of the Commissioners.

Keykert's pro-union employees used the County Board's union endorsement to boost their organizing efforts. They prepared a flyer informing co-workers of the Commissioners pro-union stand. Keykert employee Herb Harrington wasn't persuaded by the flier and wrote a letter to the Board questioning its ethics. Harrington went on to say, "The impression it [the Board's union endorsement] gives to many employees who do not think a union is necessary at Keykert is that we are going against the wishes of the County's governing body, and by extension, the citizens of the County." Harrington asked the Board for a clarification, which he has yet to receive.

He deserves one. By clumsily attempting to intervene in an election, the eight County Commissioners trampled on the rights of both Keykert management and employees. In the process, they only added to the impression in the business community that Michigan has a hostile labor climate, encouraging new and expanding businesses to look elsewhere when considering a home. The Ingham County Board of Commissioners should immediately explain its actions and retract its letter.

(The eight signers of the letter from the Ingham County Board of Commissioners to Keykert employees were Victor Celentino, Debbie DeLeon, Mary Stid, Curtis Hertel Jr., Mark Grebner, Amy Krause, Chris Swope, and Calvin Lynch)