Unions outdo Donald Trump in crying foul over election losses

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The US labor movement is rivaled only by Donald Trump when it comes to throwing out claims of election fraud. Like the Republican presidential candidate, it sees the mere fact that it lost as clear proof that the other side must have cheated. The answer can never be that the voters had other ideas.

Current statistics on how frequently union contest elections are hard to find but a 2009 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a union-backed think tank, found that that in 40 percent of workplace elections unions filed unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that monitors elections. So, in two out of every five elections, the unions alleged that management cheated.

In only 37 percent of those ULP complaints – just over a third – did the NLRB agree with the union and issue a charge against the company. Half of the time nothing came of the union complaints. The NLRB rejected them outright in 23 percent of the cases and the unions dropped the complaint before the board could rule 26 percent of the time. In the remaining 14 percent of the cases, employers settled before the NLRB could rule, leaving it unclear as to whether the employer was in the wrong or merely wanted the complaint to go away.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) recently engaged in the tradition of contesting the results after it lost a high-profile bid to organize a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama. The workers there voted 2,642 to 2,045 against unionization – a pretty clear margin for “no.” The UAW nevertheless alleges that the managers interfered with that election and are demanding that the results be thrown out and a new election be held.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the UAW “alleged that Mercedes disciplined employees for discussing unionization at work, prohibited distribution of union materials and surveilled employees.” A Bloomberg article says the UAW alleged “wanton lawlessness” by Mercedes-Benz, including the termination of four union activists working at the plant. That is out of the 5,000 that were involved in the election.

Mercedes-Benz has denied it retaliated against any of the workers. “Throughout the election, we worked with the NLRB to adhere to its guidelines, and we will continue to do so as we work through this process,” it said, according to Bloomberg. The car maker has filed a complaint of its own against the UAW, alleging “coercion” by the union through “statements and violence.”

The UAW’s main complaint appears to be that the company held mandatory factory-wide meetings where they made the case that forming a union wouldn’t benefit the workers the way the union claimed. The EPI study claimed that this was the most common tactic used by employers to oppose unionization, found in 89 percent of contested elections. Unions dub them “captive audience meetings.”

Such meetings are legal under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law that covers union organizing. Management may not threaten, coerce, or bribe their workers against forming a union, but they are allowed to simply talk to the workers and try to convince them that way. It is usually the only time workers hear anything about unions other than what the unions tell them. Unions are notoriously bad about explaining to workers the rights they have to say “no” to unions.

Management nevertheless must walk a narrow line in these meetings. The NLRB’s rule is that anything that management says that can be construed by workers as a threat crosses the line, regardless of the employer’s intent. The NLRB certifies the workplace elections, so any workers who say they have been threatened can inform the feds.

Unions are quick to claim that management crossed that line, and those claims can be quite inventive. In 2021, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted more than 2-to-1 against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The union alleged that Amazon interfered with the vote by getting the US Post Office to place a mailbox near the worksite. That particular election involved mail-in ballots and the union claimed the presence of the box somehow intimidated workers. The NLRB sided with the union, arguing that the company violated the NLRA by taking “unilateral action to increase voter turnout.” Somehow making it easier for workers to vote in their own election was a problem. A re-vote was ordered the following year and that time a narrow majority again voted against the union, but no result was announced after both the union and Amazon contested hundreds the votes. The matter remains unresolved.

The bottom line is that if workers were as gung-ho to join unions as labor leaders like to claim, then they wouldn’t be as easy to talk out of it, and things like mailboxes would not matter to the outcome. The fact that these things are what present-day complaints of election tampering turn on suggests that the real issue is that workers just aren’t buying what the unions are selling.