Why the UAW appeal at VW is a slippery slope

Who decides when public remarks become a threat?

Actor Danny Glover, flanked by union activists, came to the Detroit auto show in 2013 to press the case for the UAW's organizing efforts at Nissan's Mississippi plant. Photo credit: JOE VERMILLION, UAW

The UAW better be careful what it wishes for.

If the union convinces President Barack Obama’s National Labor Relations Board that it’s an unfair labor practice for political leaders to be publicly involved in an organizing effort, then organized labor risks diluting the power of its best weapon: public pressure.

The UAW clearly has a case in contesting its lost election in February at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga. The state’s Republican political leadership led by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam likely went overboard with their opposition to the UAW. The union is appealing the election, contending state leaders crossed the line by making financial incentives to VW contingent on workers not organizing.

But the UAW better hope this appeal won’t result in a Pyrrhic victory.

I have either covered or supervised coverage of labor disputes, organizing drives and contract negotiations for 25 years. And whether it is auto, coal, steel, components, cops, firemen or any other type of worker, the only way unions can successfully win a fight is for the public to embrace their cause.

The union playbook typically calls for bringing in friendly politicians, celebrities, liberal clergy and pro-labor groups to boost their cause. Actor Danny Glover last year helped the UAW in its ongoing effort to organize Nissan workers at the automaker’s nonunion plants in the United States. A look at the speakers list of a typical UAW event reads like a political Who’s Who for Democrat politicians and allies.

Where there is strike, there is a pro-labor politician pandering to the picket line.

So let’s fast-forward to the political landscape when a Republican eventually recaptures the White House and control of the NLRB. If Obama’s NLRB assigns legal weight to the influence of third parties on a union organizing drive, contract talks or a strike, what’s to stop a Republican NLRB from reaching the same conclusion?

Imagine an employer winning the appeal of a successful organizing drive because pro-labor outsiders “intimidated” or “threatened” workers into voting for the union? It’s a slippery slope when a judge rules on what constitutes a “threat.”

Outgoing UAW President Bob King, in a statement e-mailed Tuesday to Automotive News, said the UAW supports freedom of speech for Corker and other elected officials to express their views about unions. But he added:

“We strongly object to their violations of the National Labor Relations Act in threatening to give or take away financial incentives based on how workers vote on the issue of union representation, and assuring workers that they will get a new product if they vote against representation.

“Statements made to this effect by Tennessee politicians are both a threat of harm and a promise of benefit based on how workers vote. These statements clearly destroyed the ‘laboratory conditions’ the NLRB is charged with protecting in representation elections and present a very clear and strong case for the NLRB to set aside the election.”

Clearly, the question of when free speech crosses the line and becomes a legitimate threat will permeate this controversy for a long time. And the UAW may very well win this battle. But will it lose the war?

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com

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