A complaint from a former Dana Corp. worker in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, will shed light on how the Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board will treat a simpler and cheaper way of getting workers unionized.
The panel s decision is expected to hobble organizing efforts just as the United Auto Workers started making inroads with automotive parts suppliers such as the Toledo firm, some experts say.
Dana retiree Clarice Atherholt s complaint specifically deals with workers at a factory or shop being allowed to have an immediate election to determine whether a just-chosen union should be decertified. Typically a one-year waiting period has been used.
But her case and a similar one involving a Metaldyne Corp. factory in Pennsylvania should determine the NLRB s policy on so-called card checks, which unions have used more frequently in the last decade.
Under that approach, workers sign cards agreeing to be represented by a union, and then, instead of putting the matter to a secret-ballot election sponsored by the government, the company can automatically recognize the authorization of the union.
It s a big case, probably symbolically as much as anything, said Dan Yager, general counsel for the HR Policy Association Inc. in Washington, which advocates using secret-ballot elections.
In the labor policy area, this is one of the most important issues right now, he added.
At stake is whether the national labor board will determine card checks are as acceptable as secret-ballot elections. If not, more moves could be made to change laws governing organization elections, ultimately eliminating card checks.
That, in turn, would make it tougher for labor organizations to sign up new members. That s key, because unions have been shrinking as a percentage of the nation s workforce for decades, and the UAW itself has dropped from 1.5 million members in 1979 to about 644,000 last year.
But the easier method of signing up members, under which unions generally don t have to worry about negative messages from companies that often lead up to government-sponsored representation elections, is in doubt, some experts say.
The labor relations board is dominated by Republicans who typically favor the interests of business over labor.
Last year, three Republicans on the five-member panel decided to challenge the Dana and Metaldyne cases initially dismissed at the regional level.
The growing use of card checks and the superiority of board-supervised secret-ballot elections warrant a look at the practice, the three said in a written opinion that sent a clear signal about their leanings.
Now, though, there are two vacancies on the board, which when full has three members from the president s political party and two from the opposition.
With President Bush s second inauguration over, some hope board nominations and confirmations will occur soon, followed by a decision on the Dana and Metaldyne cases as early as spring.
But with new congressional and presidential terms starting and one board term expiring this summer, a year could pass before the case is decided, said Detroit attorney John Raudabaugh.
He was a Republican-nominated labor board member from 1990 to 1993.
Unions argue that card checks, recognized by the government for decades, are a fair and efficient way to determine representation that eliminates drawn-out elections and minimizes the potential for employer harassment.
But opponents counter that secret-ballot elections run by the government and monitored by both employers and unions are a better way to gauge the preferences of workers, who, they say, face coercion from union sympathizers during card checks.
That is what happened in Upper Sandusky, Ms. Atherholt contends.
Many workers were intimidated by union supporters standing over them as they considered whether to sign authorization cards in late 2003, she recalled.
Less than a month after the successful card-check election, she gathered signatures from 68 of 182 co-workers seeking a decertification vote.
If they re going to unionize, go ahead and have a [secret ballot] election, Ms. Atherholt said. That s how President Bush got elected.
Sue Greilich, a 17-year employee of the Upper Sandusky plant and chairman of the UAW s bargaining unit there, has a much different take on what happened during the card-check process, which she said is a fair way to determine representation.
Authorization cards were distributed at a joint meeting with the company and the union, and workers could sign cards there, take them for further consideration, or decide not to take them at all, she said.
No one stood over you and said you had to sign, Ms. Greilich said. No one harassed you. It was your decision to make.
Dana has filed a brief in support of card checks but will do whatever the federal board dictates, a spokesman said.
Under pressure from the UAW, Dana in August, 2003, announced it reached an accord with the union to take a neutral stance on organizing and to recognize card-check results at its factories supplying the Big Three.
Solidarity House, UAW headquarters, declined to comment on the pending cases.
James Craft, a business professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said card checks are fair in ideal, pressureless circumstances but he can see both sides of the argument.
Regardless, the labor board s Republican dominance doesn t bode well for unions, he said.
Faced with declining membership as the Big Three continue to shutter factories, the UAW has tried to organize U.S. plants owned by foreign automakers as well as auto parts suppliers.
Although efforts at factories owned by Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., and others have been fruitless, the UAW has struck bargains with various suppliers, a push supported by the Big Three.
Some workers at Dana factories being organized, however, have filed complaints and are being assisted by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which has mounted a campaign against card checks for years.
Besides Ms. Atherholt, for example, the foundation is helping with a similar decertification request at the Dana factory in Archbold.
That move has been delayed pending the national labor board s decision, said Matt Thornton, at the foundation.
The opposition doesn t mean the UAW s campaign is ill founded, but doing card checks at Dana and elsewhere may be harder than first thought, said Bruce Belzowski, senior research associate at the University of Michigan s Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.
If the UAW was expecting things to go a little smoother, obviously this is not the case, he said.
In Upper Sandusky, contract negotiations between the UAW and Dana are continuing. Ms. Greilich, the bargaining chairman, said local labor and management officials have established a good relationship.
Ms. Atherholt said she retired last summer after 19 years, in part to concentrate on opposing card checks. She has been writing state legislators asking that they make Ohio a right-to-work state so workers don t have a join a union if their workplaces are organized.
Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6087.
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