Improper Card Gathering in Chattanooga? A UAW-VW Update

Benjamin Sachs

Benjamin Sachs is the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School and a leading expert in the field of labor law and labor relations. He is also faculty director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy. Professor Sachs teaches courses in labor law, employment law, and law and social change, and his writing focuses on union organizing and unions in American politics. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2008, Professor Sachs was the Joseph Goldstein Fellow at Yale Law School.  From 2002-2006, he served as Assistant General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, D.C.  Professor Sachs graduated from Yale Law School in 1998, and served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the New York Times and elsewhere.  Professor Sachs received the Yale Law School teaching award in 2007 and in 2013 received the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence at Harvard Law School.  He can be reached at [email protected].

A union-side labor lawyer, not affiliated with the UAW, wrote this to us about the latest developments in Chattanooga:

The United Auto Workers (UAW) efforts to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee may or may not turn out to be a turning point in efforts to organize workers in the South, but opponents of the labor movement are certainly reacting with alarm.

One of the most prominent opponents of the labor movement is the National Right to Work Committee and its sister organization, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.  These organizations, which do not disclose the source of their funding, proclaim that they exist to fight what they describe as the “abuses” of “compulsory unionism.”  The Right to Work Committee states that “all Americans must have the right to join a union if they choose to, but none should ever be forced to affiliate with a union in order to get or keep a job.”  Of course, in practice, the Committee has never worried much about making sure that Americans have the right to join a union.  And, the Legal Defense Foundation’s high-profile cases show that they are much more concerned with making it harder for workers to unionize than they are with making sure that workers don’t have to pay fees to unions against their wishes.

The RTW Legal Defense Foundation has recently announced that it is filing charges on behalf of eight Volkswagen workers who claim that the UAW either misled or coerced them.  What’s strange about this is that Tennessee is a state that prohibits unions and employers from entering into union security agreements.  That means that no Volkswagen worker will ever have to pay any dues or fees to the UAW unless the worker voluntarily agrees to do so.  Of course, this latest move by the RTW Legal Defense Foundation is of a piece with its other high-profile case, UNITE-HERE Local 355 v. Mulhall, where it is representing a worker in Florida who opposes a recognition process agreement entered into between his employer and a labor union.  Again, Florida outlaws union security agreements, so Martin Mulhall would never be required to pay dues or fees to Unite-Here Local 355 even if the union was recognized as the employees’ bargaining representative.

The RTW Legal Defense Foundation also has a history of promising more than it delivers when it comes to allegations that unions threaten and mislead workers to get them to sign authorization cards.  Last year, one of their lawyers testified before the House of Representatives claiming that “[e]mployee experience confirms that union organizers frequently harass, mislead, and threaten employees to make them sign cards.”  To support this claim, he attached statements from ten workers that had been gathered over the course of ten years.  Leave aside that this amounts to one worker per year across the entire country complaining about these abuses.  Even more significantly, none of the ten workers was actually misled about the significance of the cards, and in fact, each of them refused to sign a card precisely because they were opposed to unionization.  In other words, the evidence that the RTW lawyers rely upon to support the claim that workers unwittingly sign union authorization cards leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.  Each of the ten workers understood that they should not sign a card because they were opposed to union representation.  While they insist that their co-workers were duped, it’s telling that they can’t find a single worker who is willing to state that they signed a union authorization card even though they did not want union representation.

While the RTW’s latest charges have generated headlines, we ought to take those headlines with a grain of salt.  If eight workers behind the charge actually signed UAW authorization cards, I’m sure the UAW will let them revoke those authorizations.  But eight workers out of 2,500 is unlikely to affect the UAW’s majority status.  Much like the opponents of Obamacare, the real fear of RTW and the anti-union politician is that the UAW will succeed and establish a new paradigm for representing workers in the South.

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