Carol Wilson was a team leader at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., plant when she signed a card for the United Auto Workers. She claimed a union organizer told her it only meant she wanted more information about UAW.
It was only later that she learned her signature meant much more. She got it revoked when she found out it was counted as a vote to unionize -- something she didn't support.
Getting the cards back was not as simple as waiting for them to be mailed back, either. Chattanooga workers had to meet in person with a union representative to get them, a process that some found intimidating.
Allegations that UAW was fraudulently claiming it had majority support in Chattanooga are likely to be dropped, though. National Labor Relations Board attorneys advised last week that complaints by eight workers be dismissed. It was the latest sign that the federal labor law enforcement agency is taking a pro-union tilt.
Not that the NLRB has been particularly pro-business under President Obama. It created major waves in 2011 when it said Boeing's decision to build a new plant in right-to-work South Carolina qualified as anti-union retribution.
But the recommendation to drop the complaint against UAW came just a week after the NLRB charged that Walmart illegally fired and retaliated against workers for participating in a series of union-organized protests.
Both actions were wins for Big Labor, which is trying hard to unionize the respective companies. Knowing that the government's watchdog is taking labor's side is a powerful incentive for unions to press further -- and for management to concede.
The big change between now and earlier in Obama's administration is that thanks to last summer's Senate filibuster showdown the NLRB now has a 3-to-2 Democratic majority after years of lacking a valid quorum.
Perhaps more important, though is the appointment of Richard Griffin, previously a top lawyer for the International Union of Operating Engineers, as general counsel.
Griffin was previously one of Obama’s recess appointments to the board. Becoming counsel may sound like a demotion, but the position has considerable power. For example, it was then-general counsel Lafe Solomon, not the board, who initiated the charges against Boeing.
In the Chattanooga case, the NLRB lawyers literally argued that it didn’t matter if UAW was lying when it claimed to have majority support. Why? Because it didn’t work.
“We are aware of no board or court case suggesting that the mere claim of majority support or demand for recognition is itself unlawful,” the counsel’s office wrote in a Jan. 17 memo. A false claim is only illegal if it actually results in the union getting recognition or a contract.
The NLRB lawyers also advised that related charges against Volkswagen that it was leaning on employees to form a union be dismissed. (The company is under major pressure from its German union to do this.)
A top VW corporate officer said in October that having a “works council” — which would require a union — was important if the Chattanooga plant was to expand to include a new SUV line. He also said the SUV could be built elsewhere, too.
That didn’t amount to any pressure on employees, the counsel’s office decided. Compare that with how the counsel’s office reacted to a Boeing official’s comment that its Puget Sound-era union had struck five times in the last four decades. The NLRB attorneys decided that was clear proof that it was retaliating by building a new plant in South Carolina. Never mind that the statement was true and that no jobs were being moved to the Palmetto State.
Union leaders pushed Senate Democrats just as hard last year to make Griffin NLRB counsel as they did to get a fully-functioning board. The last week shows why.