Friday, November 24, 2006

Union recognition ballots:The US experience

Lisbeth Latham

Among the proposals included in the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ industrial relations legislation policy, adopted at its October conference, were provisions for unions to be able to hold elections to win recognition in workplaces where the boss refuses to bargain with them. These ballots are aimed at addressing the lack of a mechanism whereby unions can make an employer negotiate a collective agreement for workers. Such ballots have been a feature of the US industrial relations system for over 70 years.

Union recognition ballots were introduced in the US in 1935, in the wake of the mass labour upsurge that began in 1934. Prior to their introduction, employers had traditionally countered organising campaigns though massive repression using private security guards, police and the National Guard. In 1934, thousands of workers in Minnesota, San Francisco, Toledo and across US coalfields fought pitched street battles as part of a series of general strikes that won union recognition and significant improvements in working conditions.

Faced with an increasingly confident working class inspired by these victories, the Roosevelt administration introduced a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) provision for union recognition to blunt the rising-tide of union struggles. In 1947, the Truman administration passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed for derecognition ballots in already-organised workplaces.

During their first 30 years, the ballots played a role in helping the growth of the US union movement. During the post-war boom, US companies were able to afford regular pay rises and improvements in working conditions for the core of unions’ membership in the old industrial heartland of the north-east and mid-west.

In a period of rising profits, capital was happy to negotiate with unions. But the sharp economic crisis in the world economy and the boom’s end saw employers begin an aggressive campaign to strip wages and conditions that unions had won, by actively attempting to keep the US union-free.

NLRB recognition and derecognition elections have become the central mechanism through which US bosses have attempted to keep themselves union-free or rid themselves of a union presence. In the November 5, 2005, In These Times Christopher Hayes wrote that 75% of US employers’ contract outside union-busters to help run their campaigns to defeat ballots. The organisations employ a range of tactics to undermine organising efforts and intimidate workers. These include:

  • Shifting known anti-union workers into workplaces that are holding ballots;
  • Holding closed meetings where management shows videos about workplaces that have closed - down after being unionised;
  • Sacking and/or transferring out known union activists;
  • Holding one-on-one interviews with workers to intimidate them into not joining unions.

The most notorious US union-busting company is retail giant Wal-Mart, which circulates guides to its store managers about how to identify and respond to attempts by workers to organise. Wal-Mart’s determination to remain union-free can be seen from its response when workers win ballots in its stores.

In 2000, when butchers in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers, Wal-Mart responded by announcing that henceforth it would sell only pre-cut meat in all of its supercentres, fired four of the union supporters and transferred the rest into other divisions (the action was ruled illegal by the NLRB three years later). When workers in Quebec successfully organised their store, Wal-Mart closed the entire store.

The impact of these actions has been a decline in recognition ballots. Despite expending millions of dollars on organising new workers — the AFL-CIO union federation alone has an organising budget of US$10 million — in 2002 US unions won 54% of ballots held, with 78,284 joining unions as a consequence of the vote. Eighty-thousand workers — just 0.1% of the US work force — are being organised into unions through ballots each year and only 9% of US workers are members of unions, compared to 500,000-per-year during the 1950s, when 35% of workers were members of unions.

Even more worrying for US unions is that they are less successful in defeating derecognition ballots. This reduced win-rate reflects that winning a recognition ballot does not force the bosses to bargain in good faith, and they are more likely resist a union’s attempt to secure a contract when they know that they can use the failure to help push the union out in a subsequent ballot. According to the AFL-CIO, unions secure a collective agreement in less than two-thirds of workplaces after a successful recognition ballot.

A sharp rise in labour-practice violations by US bosses has been associated with limited penalties for companies found guilty of violating workers’ rights. While having stronger penalties could reduce the likelihood that employers will attempt to intimidate workers (depending on the cost of fines compared to that of having a unionised work force for employers), the penalties would be permanently under threat. Additionally, this builds reliance on courts to protect workers’ rights — rather than building unions’ strength and capacity to defend workers — undermining the confidence of workers to take on the boss and organise.

In industries with high employment turnovers, any delay on a ballot, such as court action around violations by employers, can help undermine unionising drives, so that even when unions win court cases to defend workers’ rights they lose the ballot.

Although winning union recognition is an important step in building a union, on its own it doesn’t build an organisation able to consistently win contracts. Getting people to vote in a recognition ballot is different to getting them to participate in an industrial campaign to win a contract, which can turn into a war of attrition between workers on the one hand and the boss on the other.

In the US, some of the most successful organising campaigns have bypassed the ballot process entirely, such as the Justice for Janitors campaign. Similar to the strategy followed in the Australian construction industry by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, this focused not only on mobilising members and supporters to place maximum pressure on employers. It also sought to shift the focus of the campaign from subcontractors who employ janitors, who have extremely tight profit margins and are more difficult to win contracts from. Instead, Justice for Janitors has targeted the larger companies, such as hotels and resorts, to force them to pay more to subcontractors and to only contract unionised subcontractors.

Union recognition ballots undermine the democratic right of workers to be members of unions, as they remove the right of individual workers to join a union and be represented by it. Any call for union-recognition ballots by the labour movement reflects a significant retreat from the right of unions to represent workers wherever they have members.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #692


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

'Operational Reasons': The New Excuse for Sackings

Lisbeth Latham

Less than a week after Work Choices came into effect on March 27, the Cowra Abattoir in NSW hit the headlines when it announced plans to sack 29 workers and re-hire 20 on worse conditions and with a $200 pay cut.

PM John Howard rushed to defend the abattoir management, telling parliament on March 31: “To suggest that when a firm is operating uneconomically that it has no right to alter the structure of its work force ... with the inevitable consequence that the firm is going to go out of business, defies rationality.”

Media attention forced management to withdraw the workers’ termination notices in early April, and the Howard government asked the new Office of Workplace Services to determine whether the sackings were legal. Predictably, it found that the primary reason for the sackings was to return the company to profitability, not to shift workers from a collective to an individual agreement with worse conditions.

Before Work Choices, workers were protected by unfair dismissal laws that prohibited workers being sacked and re-hired on lower pay. Section 792 (4) of Work Choices makes these protections available only where it can be proven that the “sole” or “dominant” reason for a dismissal was that the worker was entitled to certain pay and conditions under an industrial award or agreement. Clause 643 (8) of the new law introduces protection for big businesses against any unfair dismissal claim when a worker is sacked for so-called “operational reasons”.

Who decides when sackings are for “operational purposes”? The US multinational Enron posted profits of US$140 billion just nine months before it declared bankruptcy on December 2, 2001. Similarly, any company prepared to doctor its books can make itself appear unprofitable if it means real profits can be increased by slashing employees’ wages and conditions.

Howard said that Cowra Abattoir management’s letter to workers in February saying that it was in financial difficulties shows that the job cuts were for “operational purposes”. But the boss crying poor can be just an excuse, as Leigh Vanroon’s experience shows.

Vanroon, a Queensland print worker, was sacked after he approached his union regarding his work roster. According to the June 16 Age, despite Vanroon’s willingness to work the new hours, which would have lost him $160 a week, when he told his manager that the roster change needed to be inserted into his contract, the manager told him to “fuck off”.

Management then sent Vanroon a letter informing him that he had been sacked for “operational reasons”. Vanroon told the Age, “Up until that point in time, I thought my job was safe. I was a good operator. I’d been promoted to shift supervisor so they obviously thought I was a valuable employee. And in 24 hours I was out the door.”

In Vanroon’s case, “operational reasons” was a thinly veiled excuse for his termination that was used to deny him access to unfair dismissal provisions.

If a company is not profitable, why should workers suffer the consequences, given that they do not generally receive the benefit when large profits are made? If workers accept pay cuts to help rebuild the company’s profitability, there is no guarantee that their conditions will improve when profit margins rise.

This was the experience of workers in the US auto-parts company Delphi, which declared bankruptcy in October 2005 and sought to sack two-thirds of its 33,000-strong work force and reduce by 65% the hourly wages of those who remained. At the same time, Delphi CEO Steve Miller promised to pay US$500 million in bonuses to senior managers if the company was made profitable again. He didn’t promise a better deal to the rest of the company’s work force.
We can expect to hear a lot more of the “operational reasons” excuse for unfair sackings under the new industrial relations regime — another reason why workers and our unions need a concerted political and industrial campaign to overturn Work Choices entirely.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #673


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Auto Workers Prepare for Showdown

Lisbeth Latham
On March 31, Delphi, the largest auto-parts company in the US and the former parts arm of General Motors, applied to US courts to cancel its labour contracts with unions to allow the company to reorganise and continue to function.

Delphi plans to close 13 of its 21 US plants and retain just 8000 of its 31,000 casual workers, with 8000 salaried staff also set to lose their jobs. Those casuals who keep their jobs would have their pay cut initially from US$27 to $22 per hour, and would then receive a $50,000 wages buy-out in September 2007 when hourly wages would be cut to $16.

Delphi’s court application follows the refusal by the United Auto Workers, the biggest union representing Delphi workers, to accept the restructuring plan. The UAW leadership’s refusal to accept the offer was influenced by the fear that both GM and Ford, which are renegotiating their contracts with the UAW in 2007, would seek to include similar concessions in their contracts. Delphi’s bankruptcy reorganisation is expected to force workers to respond with strike action.

On April 4, the Free Press reported that 45 workers laid off at Delphi’s Flint East Plant on March 31 had returned to work on April 4 and refused to leave. Any extended disruption in Delphi’s parts production is expected to cost GM, which is on the edge of bankruptcy, and would signal a deepening crisis in the US auto industry.

For more information on the campaign against concessions and job losses, visit /">> and

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #664


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Auto-workers fight back

Chris Latham

Over the past year, the major US auto-makers have suffered an ongoing profit squeeze. In the first nine months of 2005, General Motors and Ford lost several billion US dollars. These losses, which reflect the increasing competitive pressure within the global car market, have been blamed by car makers on the high costs of wages and entitlements for both current and retired auto workers.

In November GM, with support from the leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW), won concessions on health benefits from workers and retirees that are expected to reduce GM costs by US$1 billion, after 61% of workers voted to accept the concessions. On December 16, Ford announced its own cost-saving measures on employee health benefits, expected to save the company $650 million. Ford’s plan was passed with support of just 51% of its workers and there have been a number of complaints of voting irregularities from UAW members.

The December 16 Detroit News reported that voting was not conducted via ballot boxes, but by officials walking along assembly lines with large buckets to collect ballots. A number of workers at Ford’s historic River Rouge factory reported intimidation to vote for the deal. Regardless, GM announced that it would close 12 plants in North America, with the loss of 30,000 jobs (a third of its work force). Ford is expected to announce its end-of-year performance on January 23, which is likely to be accompanied by the closure of 10 plants and the loss of up to 30,000 plant jobs and 4000 white-collar jobs.

On October 8, after losing $2.4 billion over the previous year, Delphi filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chapter 11 is a unique US law that allows companies to renege on and renegotiate collective contracts with workers. It provides companies with a battering ram, backed up by the courts, with which to strip wages and conditions from contracts.

Until 1999, Delphi was the parts arm of General Motors. GM then spun it off to create a separate company. In the short term this was seen as a way to boost profits once the GM contract came to an end in 2008, as it made it easier for the auto-makers to apply leverage to workers to drive down costs, and to shift the burden of capital investment in the parts industry away from the motor companies. However these shifts came at a cost, as profits that had historically flowed from the parts industry now had to be divided between both auto-makers and the new companies.

Delphi executives have argued that the company is not viable due to the amount it is forced to spend on wages and conditions, particularly health care, for current and retired workers. In mid-November Delphi demanded that auto workers accept 65% wage cuts, slashing pay from $27 per hour to $9.50 per hour. An alternative plan discussed by Delphi chief executive officer Steve Miller has been to slash US jobs from 33,000 to 10,000.

Delphi looms as a major threat to US auto-workers on two fronts. First, the spectre of a total collapse of Delphi is being raised as an event that must be avoided due to the knock-on effect that it would have on GM through the drop in the availability of parts. It’s unlikely that Delphi would be unable to continue to function at some level — this claim is being used to apply pressure on workers.

The following was written by Caroline Lund, a member of UAW Local 2244 at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, California, for the plant’s newsletter The Barking Dog. The plant has 5000
workers and is a joint venture of GM and Toyota.

The assault on workers’ conditions increasingly threatens the UAW’s survival. Over the past two decades, membership numbers have dramatically fallen and less than half of current members are employed in the auto industry. In response to Delphi’s aggressive move, the UAW joined with other Delphi unions to form the Mobilize @ Delphi coalition. It has started a petition drive and has organised informational pickets against the cut-backs.

But it is rank-and-file Delphi workers who have launched a real fight-back — establishing websites and holding meetings in Delphi plant towns in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and New York, drawing between 100 and 175 workers at each. They have chosen the name Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS), and they are calling for a strike throughout the auto industry to stop the concessions. In preparation for a strike, they are organising a “work-to-rule” movement. Work-to-rule means doing your job strictly according to the job description and safety rules, and nothing more. Don’t go the extra mile, don’t use your expertise, if something goes wrong, let the boss tell you what to do.

Under pressure from the rank-and-file meetings, UAW president Ron Gettelfinger endorsed the work-to-rule, but has refused to organise members to carry it out.

On January 8, SOS organised mass picketing at the Detroit Auto Show to protest Delphi’s attack on workers. According to SOS the pickets attracted 700 UAW members and their supporters from across Michigan and from other states.

Delphi activist Gregg Shotwell says the UAW petition to the bankruptcy judge is pointless. “[It] doesn’t have one legal leg to stand on. The judge will never read it. His secretary will file it under Useless And Worthless.”

Shotwell says, “I appreciate the rank-and-file members who in all sincerity have written and circulated petitions seeking public support for Delphi autoworkers. They are genuine.
“But wishful thinking is the notion that someone else will take care of your business and fight your battles for you. Hope is fighting like hell against all odds. I don’t believe in wishful thinking, but like many other UAW members, I am full to bursting with hope.”

The UAW’s informational pickets will not do the trick either. Delphi CEO Miller even gave them his blessing. He said the picket lines “are to be for information only, and we don’t expect any disruptions to our operations”.

Soldiers of Solidarity have a more realistic idea. Shotwell explained: “The rank and file have a plan and we don’t mind telling everyone it is based on inflicting economic hardship on GM-Delphi until management understands that a fair contract is cheaper than industrial combat.
“We have no intention of sheepishly walking off the cliff of economic self destruction. We have no intention of handing our union to Miller on a silver plate. Delphi’s failure is the result of mismanagement and fraud. We refuse to bear the punishment for their crimes and incompetence.”

In response to the rank-and-file upsurge, Delphi and GM have recognised that the UAW needs more time to deal with its rebellious members. Delphi postponed its deadline for tearing up its union contracts from mid-December, to mid-January, then to mid-February.

Soldiers of Solidarity look back to how the UAW was founded. Shotwell said: “When sit-down strikers in Flint won recognition for the UAW in 1937, they didn’t win it by writing letters to the editor. They didn’t win it by donating to V-CAP [a voluntary contribution by members to fund the UAW’s donations to candidates in elections] and voting Democrat. They won by taking power into their own hands.

“We have been indoctrinated with the policy of helplessness. It’s a lie. We are not defenceless victims. We have power. We control production. We can bring General Motors to its knees. The sit-downers won because they seized control of the shop floor. They won because they shut down GM. Our challenge is no less.”

The concessions that Delphi is asking for are unprecedented in any industry. If Delphi gets away with it, the rest of the corporations will follow their example. All management will feel the wind in their sails.

But more unions are fighting back. The November 21 Wall Street Journal reported, “The number of work stoppages in the U.S., including strikes by unions and management-sponsored lockouts, is on the upswing as tensions rise between workers and companies that are seeking to cut wages and benefits”.

The article speculated that “workers could be drawn to unions willing to strike to resist cuts to health-care benefits, in particular”.

For more information visit

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #653


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