United Auto Workers (UAW) President Bob King recently pledged $60 million of his union's money to pressure foreign automakers into unionizing their employees. He has acknowledged that the UAW is in trouble and its very survival is at stake. At a recent conference in Washington, he said, "If we don't organize these transnationals, I don't think there's a long-term future for the UAW - I really don't."
The UAW has tried to go after workers at foreign automakers' American operations - without much success. Many of those factories are in right-to-work states, mostly in the South. Workers at those plants, including Honda and Nissan facilities, have generally rejected the UAW's organizing efforts.
Now Mr. King and the union he leads are shifting gears and pressuring those automakers' executives to acquiesce to organizing efforts. The UAW has laid out a set of demands, known as its Principles for Fair Union Elections, which are intended to facilitate the union's organizing efforts. The union will soon follow up with a strategy to see those principles implemented.
Essentially, the UAW principles boil down to a company's managers not telling workers their side of the story regarding what would happen if a union organized their business. The principles call for employers not to talk to their employees unless they also invite the UAW to speak, never to say that unionization would lead to job losses (and to disavow any group that does) and always to leave open the option of card-check organizing.
How does the UAW plan to get companies to agree to such terms? By browbeating them into it, using extortionate tactics. For businesses that resist acceding to the UAW's principles and let themselves be unionized, Mr. King threatens to wage publicity campaigns to tarnish their reputations.
Mr. King has enlisted the help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has experience in pressuring large corporations through reputational attacks. In 2001, Mr. Jackson's Rainbow PUSH coalition secured $8 million from Toyota for a "diversity program" after Mr. Jackson threatened the carmaker with a boycott because of an ad he denounced as racist. After Toyota paid up, the boycott threat ceased.
If that kind of pressure doesn't work, the UAW can take its attack to the world stage. Mr. King recently announced that if companies resist his organizing efforts, the UAW "will launch a global campaign to brand that company a human rights violator." What would such a campaign look like? The Obama administration's report to the United Nations Human Rights Council - whosemembersinclude such human rights champions as China, Cuba, Libya and Saudi Arabia - provides a hint.
The report, submitted by the State Department in August 2010,strongly suggests that the degree to which the law facilitates unionization should be a human rights matter - and that the United States falls short in that area. It states, "Currently there are several bills in our Congress that seek to strengthen workers' rights - ensuring that workers can continue to associate freely, organize and practice collective bargaining as the U.S. economy continues to change."
This is loaded language. As Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers noted shortly after the report's release, "If the legislation is needed to 'strengthen workers' rights,' the implication is that U.S. labor laws are weak and these rights are not adequately protected." And if workers' rights are not adequately protected, then it easily follows that they're being routinely abused.
The UAW - or any other union, for that matter - likely will cite the State Department document in any complaint it files with the International Labor Organization, the World Trade Organization or any other international body against a company it seeks to organize. Mr. King's recent remarks indicate this is an option the UAW might pursue.
For the UAW, the stakes are high, so its aggressive posture isn't surprising. The collapse of the Big Three's once-overwhelming dominance of the American car market has been disastrous for its membership. The UAW has lost more than 1 million members since 1979 - more than two-thirds its former number. That year, the UAW had 1.5 million members; by 2009, its membership had dropped to only 355,000.
Despite this membership collapse, the UAW's headquarters has managed to retain considerable assets. According to reports filed with the Department of Labor of the union's 1,038 full-time employees, 573 - that is, more than half - make six figures. The union also has more than $800 million in its strike fund, making it one of the richest unions in the United States. Of course, this is all funded by union dues, and without new members, the UAW's wealth ultimately will decline along with its membership.
To reverse this long decline, the UAW is threatening non-union automakers with reputational attacks. Many of those attacks likely will form part of corporate campaigns in which unions join with allies - environmentalists, human rights activists, liberal religious groups - to pressure employers.
In a corporate campaign, the non-labor group's involvement helps obscure the union's self-interested motive in expanding its membership, which helps gain public support for the campaign. In the end, however, the goal is more members and more union dues, not protecting workers. If you see a non-union auto company derided as a "human rights violator," check to see who is behind the attack. The company may not be a villain but the target of a shakedown.
Ivan Osorio is a labor-policy fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). F. Vincent Vernuccio is labor-policy counsel at CEI.
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