The federal government is investigating a Michigan labor group and company for forcing three employees into the union on the eve of the state’s implementation of right-to-work laws.
Three security guards with AlliedBarton Security Services filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after the company signed an exclusive agreement with United Protective Workers of America (UPWA) Local 1.
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The workers, who guard a Dearborn-based Ford plant, alleged that the agreement forced all employees to pay full dues into union coffers and membership played a deciding role in bonuses and promotions.
"These are bullying tactics unions have chosen to use and obviously an investigation should be launched," said Annie Patnaude, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan. "Unfortunately, a lot of this has been going on, explicit and implied threats if workers exercise the new freedom."
The deal came after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R.) made the state the nation’s 24th right-to-work state, but before the law actually went into effect. The law bars companies from requiring employees to join unions as a condition of employment and allows workers to choose whether they will join unions. Using membership to determine compensation, promotion, and hiring is a clear violation, according to supporters.
UPWA’s strategy was common in the four months between the bill’s signing and its implementation. Unions scrambled to put in place lengthy contracts with employers in the public and private sector before March 28 because the law would not apply to any existing contracts.
The Taylor School District, for example, signed a contract with a local teachers union that would force all teachers to pay dues to the union for the next 10 years, while guaranteeing pay and benefits for members for only five.
A Michigan lower court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the contract, but right-to-work supporters hope to overturn that decision on appeal.
"It’s obviously a violation of the spirit of right-to-work, if not the letter of the law," Patnaude said. "I would hope courts see through these contracts as a thinly-veiled attempt to circumvent right-to-work and a worker’s freedom to join a union."
Unions fought against the law in the state legislature and court system with little success. Labor strategy shifted from fighting implementation to avoiding it, or punishing employees who opt out of the unions. Steven Cook, the head of Michigan’s largest teacher’s union, circulated a memo to labor officials in January telling them to sue employees who try to leave.
The three security guards said that the UPWA did not have to use the court system to punish them for their reluctance to join the union—it failed to disclose how dues money was spent and launched an intimidation campaign when workers began a petition drive to leave the union. Both, if true, run afoul of federal labor laws.
The company did not return request for comment. Attempts to reach the UPWA were unsuccessful. A phone number Local 1 registered with the federal government belonged to a Dearborn Ford facility. Receptionists at the plant said that they were unaware of any union at the plant outside of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, which represents nearly all of the workers at the plant. A UAW official said that he had never heard of the UPWA.
"I didn’t even know they [the guards] were organized," he said.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW), which fought to pass the state’s right-to-work legislation in December, is representing one of the workers at the center of the case. Foundation president Mark Mix said that the union agreement highlighted the behavior the law set out to prohibit.
"This case underscores just how important Michigan’s new Right to Work law is for Michigan’s workers," he said in a statement. "No worker should ever be forced to pay union dues or fees to a union as a condition of their employment."
The NLRB’s Detroit office will hear the case on Tuesday.
Patnaude said that the NLRB could set the bar going forward on how far unions go to preserve membership numbers.
"We’ll continue to see this as unions scheme to protect their monopoly over workers," Patnaude said. "Instead of listening to workers and representing their interests to demonstrate the union’s value, they’re using these coercive tactics to force workers to join."