Union "Salt" Poisons the Well

Labor unions have at times shown contempt for firms and workers who choose to operate independently, without the "benefit" of collective bargaining. A disturbing tactic known as "salting" shows the lengths to which some unions will go to achieve through manipulation and abuse of the legal system what they cannot achieve voluntarily.

"Salting" occurs when a union tries to get non-union firms to hire pro-union workers and even paid union organizers. If one of its applicants is rejected, the union then files unfair labor practice charges against the company, claiming that it "discriminated" against the applicant due to his union sympathies. There is no penalty for filing baseless charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but defending against the charges can be very costly to the company and its workers. The firm will have to hire a lawyer and that can use up a lot of a small company's limited resources. Wasting the company's time and money is precisely the objective.

On the other hand, if the "salt" is hired, he can then foment trouble internally. He'll file charges against the company, again often groundless, but almost any grievance can conceivably be deemed an "unfair labor practice." If the company fires him, he happily goes back on the union payroll-and then files charges for discriminatory termination. The company either pays a small fortune in legal costs, or else it unionizes.

Several small Michigan construction firms have been the targets of "salting" campaigns. Toering Electric Company of Grand Rapids has thus far paid over $31,000 to "compensate" pro-union salts whom it declined to hire and has been coerced into agreeing to hire salts for the next five journeymen positions that become available. The union boasts about "putting a big hurt" on this (and other) non-union companies.

Van Til Mechanical, Inc., of Wyoming (in Kent County) was another target. This firm, which had never had any labor charges filed against it in its previous eighteen-year history, was suddenly hit with twelve NLRB complaints within a span of two months in 1993. To date, it has paid out over $40,000 in attorney fees and settlement costs. Contesting the charges would have cost even more. As a result, the company's future is now precarious.

Last year, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision holding that union organizers were not entitled to special legal protection if they apply for work at a firm they are targeting. The statute in question, the National Labor Relations Act, is quite ambiguous, but the Supreme Court decided to give it an interpretation that is both hostile to freedom of association and supportive of this unscrupulous abuse of the legal process. "Salting" has been given the green light and only a change in the law will put an end to it.

Why should anyone care about this? For one thing, if unions succeed in driving out lower-cost, non-union competitors, the cost of business and the products it makes will rise. Non-union firms frequently underbid union firms because without wasteful work rules, they are able to make more efficient use of workers. In the absence of the healthy competition that comes from non-union firms, unions would have little incentive to be reasonable and fair. As they sometimes candidly admit, union leaders are businessmen. They sell labor. If only union firms are in business, the unions corner the market.

The notorious inefficiencies of union work rules have led to a significant loss of market share for union construction firms. In Michigan, 80 percent of non-governmental construction work is being done by merit-shop (non-union) contractors. "Salting" is an attempt to win back lost market share through harassment.

Second, there is a question of justice. Is it right for any group to manipulate the law to injure or destroy competitors? Isn't it a troubling trend for groups to turn to coercive governmental power to accomplish their goals rather than trying to do so through their own abilities? Is it consistent with the ideal of a free society that honest business people can be harassed to the breaking point with groundless accusations? Is it morally right to compel an employer to subsidize a union organizer's disruptive behavior and thereby become an accomplice in overturning his own employment objectives?

Union leaders are often very quick to denounce "greed" in others. But when they try to eliminate competitors and corner the market on construction work-not by being better, but by cleverly abusing the system-they take greed to new lows. Here is an opportunity for labor law reform.