A key union organizing tactic, vital to United Auto Workers' efforts to gain members, has been upheld in a case involving Toledo's Dana Corp.
The ruling, a blow to opponents of a method that makes it easier for unions to represent factory workers, focused on a 2003 agreement between Dana and the UAW that basically said the company would take a neutral stance when the union tried to sign up its workers. In return, the union agreed to work with the firm on various employment issues.
The decision by a National Labor Relations Board administrative judge that the agreement did not violate labor laws was hailed by the UAW, but it will be appealed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The latter group has been fighting the legality of such agreements and other related issues.
UAW President Ron Gettlefinger yesterday called the decision "a major victory for workers' rights."
But Justin Hakes, a spokesman for the Right to Work organization, said, "The way we feel about it is the administrative law judge [ignored] 40 years' worth of established legal precedent that you can't negotiate a contract prior to the establishment of majority support by that union."
A Dana spokesman declined to comment on the merits of the decision.
The Right to Work group alleged that Dana and the UAW illegally bargained employment terms for workers at a Dana piston rings plant in St. Johns, Mich., before workers had a chance to express their preference about union representation.
The challenge was dismissed by the NLRB Detroit regional director but was reinstated by the labor board's chief counsel in Washington. Hearings were held by administrative law judge William Kocol, who issued his decision this week.
He ruled that the agreement at the St. Johns plant, which employs 300 hourly workers, did not constitute a contract and thus did not violate labor law.
"There is no evidence in this case that Dana verbally or in writing recognized the UAW as the bargaining representative for the St. Johns employees," Mr. Kocol wrote. "To the contrary, the letter of agreement explicitly states that recognition has not been granted. "
The agreement, he said, did "touch upon terms and conditions of employment" but specifically stated the company had not recognized the UAW as a bargaining agent for the workers. Therefore, there was no illegal contract, and the allegation is dismissed, Mr. Kocol wrote.
Such agreements allow the union to be recognized as the bargaining agent once it obtains signatures from a majority of workers at a factory. They increasingly are being used by the UAW to bolster its sagging membership rolls.
Traditionally, an NLRB-supervised election is held after the signatures are obtained, but unions maintain that some companies wage campaigns prior to the election to encourage employees to vote against the union.
The Right to Work group's appeal will be decided by a panel of the NLRB, and that decision could be appealed to the full board or to a federal court.
A board spokesman said the group has until May 11 to file an appeal.
The case decided this week is separate from other NLRB cases involving Dana and the UAW.
Those cases, from a complaint filed by a former Dana worker in Upper Sandusky and a similar one involving a Metaldyne Corp. factory in Pennsylvania, deal with factory workers being allowed to have an immediate election after a union is established by obtaining a majority of signature cards.
Typically, such an election to try to oust the union is prohibited for at least a year.
Those cases are still pending a board decision.
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at