Op-Ed: When Alabama workers fought for years to escape the UAW ‘Roach Motel’



Although the upcoming vote of Alabama Mercedes-Benz employees over whether or not to affiliate with officials from the Detroit-based United Autoworkers union has been billed as a historic first for the state, in fact it isn’t.

Based in Hamilton, Ala., workers at NTN-Bower, which manufactures roller bearings used in vehicle wheels, were subject to UAW representation from 1976 until the workers kicked the union out in 2015 after a protracted legal fight.

In Hamilton, UAW bosses ordered a divisive, prolonged strike at the plant. When some employees decided to defy union orders and exercise their right to return to work despite the strike, they faced aggressive harassment from UAW partisans, including tacks dropped to flatten tires and even racial slurs.

“Someone had to stand up for families like mine who simply couldn’t risk going on strike,” said Ginger Estes, who would go on to lead a petition to “decertify,” or remove, the UAW. “It didn’t take me long to see firsthand how the UAW was putting the plant at risk.

“The union’s leaders were willing to gamble with the livelihoods of hundreds of workers and were actively protecting lazy and incompetent employees who made the rest of us look bad.”

When workers began collecting decertification petitions at NTN-Bower, the harassment ramped up again.

Estes, whose husband and son also worked at the plant, took the threats personally. “During my signature-gathering process, I frequently had harassing phone calls made to my house and even had three of our family dogs die under mysterious circumstances.”

Eventually, Estes and her coworkers collected enough signatures to get the National Labor Relations Board to schedule a decertification election. However, workers soon found out that UAW officials weren’t willing to accept the results when a majority voted to reject the union.

UAW lawyers got the NLRB to overturn the first election’s result. When a rerun election occurred, a majority again voted against keeping the union, but UAW lawyers got that vote thrown out too. In a third election the UAW supposedly “won,” but that vote was disallowed due to obvious vote fraud, as more votes were cast than there were actual eligible voters.

In the fourth election, the UAW got the vote against them overturned. In the fifth and final vote, the largest majority yet voted to remove the UAW. This time, with free representation from National Right to Work Foundation attorneys, UAW lawyers were unable to overturn the result.

It took multiple years and five votes for the Alabamians at NTN-Bower to finally overcome UAW tactics designed to disenfranchise them. In the process, they saw how union officials had mistreated workers who questioned the union.

Unfortunately, their story is hardly unique.

Take the recent case of employees at a Nissan North America, Inc. parts distribution center in Somerset, New Jersey. After the previous contract expired, workers expressed frustration with how UAW officials openly ignored their voice and treated rank-and-file workers with contempt.

“UAW union officials were far more concerned with hoarding power in the workplace than communicating with or listening to workers,” observed Nissan employee Michael Oliver, who led the effort to remove the UAW. “They kept us completely in the dark about contract negotiations and treated anyone in the workplace who opposed their agenda or questioned their leadership with a huge amount of arrogance, contempt and even intimidation.”

At the election held last month, 70% of workers voted to remove the union, but the vote almost didn’t happen. UAW officials rushed to impose a contract, seemingly in an attempt to halt the decertification vote for years and/or influence its outcome.

Fortunately, the UAW’s tactics failed. The Nissan workers saw the UAW contract and voted overwhelmingly to send union officials packing.

When workers contact the National Right to Work Foundation for legal assistance with decertification, they frequently report that union organizers told workers that “if you don’t like the union, then you can always vote us out later.”

As experiences of workers at NTN Bower and Nissan demonstrate, union officials often use underhanded legal tactics to disenfranchise the very workers they claim to “represent.”

That’s why, following her multi-year battle with UAW bosses, Alabama NTN-Bower employee Ginger Estes concluded: “The UAW will make lots of promises to workers during its campaign that it’s under no obligation to keep. But like a roach motel, once you check in to the UAW, it’s difficult if not impossible to check out.”

Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Foundation.

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