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OPINION - Who wears the union label?

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) There are two interesting decisions that will soon be made by the National Labor Relations Board – if they are legally able to make decisions. (The board doesn’t have a quorum to conduct official business, with only two sitting members who are serving their terms. The third member was appointed by President Obama without U.S. Senate confirmation under a recess appointment. But the Senate wasn’t in recess. They were conducting pro-forma business. The appointment is being challenged in court, and was ruled unconstitutional by the D.C. Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last month, and is likely to rule against the Obama Administration.)

The first case involves the failed unionization attempt at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The UAW is expected to file an unfair labor practices complaint after workers turned down union membership. The UAW had every advantage to win this vote: Volkswagen did not lobby workers against joining. Management gave the union an office in the plant, and let them have access to the shop floor. It didn’t matter – the union was rejected by 56% of the workers. So what’s the UAW’s complaint? Some state lawmakers and outside political groups spoke out against unionization. There were anti-union billboards and TV commercials. Politicians warned that if Chattanooga was a union town other companies might stay away. So what? All of this falls under the banner of free speech. If others in the community wish to speak out on the issue of the day, how exactly does the UAW propose to stop them?

Most workers who voted ‘no’ said one of two things: they blame UAW greed for the ruin of Detroit and the traditional American automakers there, or they don’t want union dues to come out of their paychecks.

The UAW’s hole card is that a majority of workers at Volkswagen-Chattanooga signed union cards. Yet that’s done face-to-face, after being personally lobbied (bullied?) by a union organizer. Yet in a secret-ballot election, a majority of the workers voted against unionizing. The UAW hopes that the NLRB will issue a card-check ruling, overturning the vote. It’s not likely.

The other case involves college football players at Northwestern University. They’ve signed union cards, and claim they are employees of their college. This could change the landscape of college athletics – and should also give pause to schools that are considering stipends for their players. But there is nothing that indicates an employee-employer relationship. The players choose their schools; they aren’t “hired” as in a regular employment situation. They aren’t paid; they’re offered a scholarship to attend school. If the NLRB sides with the players, this is one leap forward from a stretching of the definition of a job from ten years ago when teaching assistants won the right to unionize. A TA also isn’t an employee. They do get a small stipend, but they primarily agree to teach classes or assist tenured professors for the privilege of taking graduate-level classes to earn advance degrees. Just last week New York University’s teaching assistants voted to unionize.

These should be open-and-shut rulings against labor. But the current administration hasn’t been a neutral referee. The courts will ultimately be involved.

Chris Conley
2.18.14