It may seem counterintuitive that the United Auto Workers union would stake its future on unionizing the colloquial “Right to Work South,” but that’s exactly what it’s done in recent years in targeting Southern automakers for unionization. The desperation behind this drive to unionize continues growing as time goes on, a desperation that’s explained in four words: Black Lake Country Club.
Located in faraway Onaway, Mich., Black Lake is a luxurious getaway, a grown-up’s playground of sorts for the giant Detroit-based auto union’s top leaders. But it has been struggling to stay financially afloat for years, having already accepted $39 million in loans from the union — loans that operating revenues alone haven’t been able to repay. Without a fresh infusion of dues money from presently nonunion Southern automaker employees, this hallowed ground may eventually be forced to close.
Most of the UAW’s current members have never seen the golf club’s swanky amenities, even though they get a discount to play there (airfare not included). It essentially exists for the benefit of union leaders. Those same executives are currently trying to force the employees of a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., a Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a Nissan plant in Mississippi to effectively finance this fiasco — and employees of Florida’s automakers won’t be far behind.
Black Lake is not an exception to an otherwise sound UAW balance sheet. To the contrary, it is symbolic of a much larger cash crisis within the union. After decades of membership losses — the UAW’s rolls are down 75 percent since 1980 — the union, like its country club, needs evermore revenue to keep the good times rolling. The only thing that’s kept the union afloat has been its bailout from federal taxpayers of two of the Big Three.
Beyond the country club, the UAW’s pension plans are underfunded to the tune of $33 billion. Without the new blood from the generally younger employees at Southern auto pants, the gap between the union’s receipts in and payments out will only grow. Combined with its membership crisis, the pension problem may have Motown singing the blues.
The UAW’s dire straits are evident for all to see. But they also put into context the unions’ underhanded strategy to unionize Southern auto plants. It’s no secret that the union wants to avoid an actual representation election. The UAW’s president, Bob King, referring to the union’s efforts at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, said that an “election process is more divisive.” He also stated that an actual private vote on whether to unionize isn’t “in the best interests of Tennessee.” It’s almost certain that he feels the same about other Southern states and their citizens.
In place of an election, the UAW prefers undermining standard democratic voting procedures to rig the outcome and ensure that they emerge victorious. It does so using a process known as a “card check,” which, if the automaker were to agree to honor the outcome, allows the UAW to bypass elections by having employees publicly sign cards in the presence of professional union organizers saying they want to join the union.
In practice, this is an illegitimate procedure that strips employees of their right to a secret-ballot election while giving the union greater ability to strong-arm employees into binding agreements. At least eight of the VW Chattanooga plant’s employees already have complained that the UAW did exactly that to extract their signatures.
Their situation never would have developed had Congress passed the Employee Rights Act. The ERA, which was introduced in the last Congress by Sen. Orrin Hatch, ensures that no workplace could be unionized without a guaranteed secret-ballot election. Without such legal protection, however, affected employees have instead been left to fend for themselves in court. Their own free choice was constrained against their will; now their only hope is for the courts to rule in their favor.
But win or lose their case, they shouldn’t bet on getting a tee time at Black Lake any time soon — and neither should other Southern auto employees, when the UAW comes calling.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which also operates WorkerCenters.com.