Know Your Rights:

Employer Domination of Labor Organizations

by Doug Bonney

Corporate welfare comes in many forms.  One of the most tried and true tactics has been for corporate special interests to go directly to Congress to ask for special legislative favors.  Corporations have practiced this type of welfare since time immemorial.  For instance, in 1914, a cartoon in the National Ripsaw, a Socialist weekly, showed belching smokestacks towering over the national capitol building.  The caption was: “The National Association of Manufacturers’ law factory.”

In recent years, anti-union corporations have tried mightily to resurrect a very old and—before it was outlawed—effective ploy.  Specifically, one of these union busters’ pet desires has been for labor law “reform” legislation that would permit employers to form employee committees to address workplace issues.  Typically, employers want to pack these committees with their lackeys and use them to generate trumped up support for employer initiatives, often initiatives that hurt the employees.  If a committee actually shows any independence, the employer will typically disband the committee, fire the instigators, or simply ignore the committee’s actions or recommendations.

The tactic of using employer dominated committees to defeat employee self organization is nothing new.  During and after World War I, for instance, the steel industry’s employers’ association advised companies “As collective bargaining is sanctioned by the Government we advise the employers to treat with the men in their employ. . . . Be sure that the shop committee is of your best employees and not a committee appointed by outside agencies.”  Thus, employers have long understood that hand picked employee committees offer protection from union infiltration and employee organization.  Although employers today may not always be so blunt, the intent of the current antiunion efforts to permit employer dominated committees is apparent to everyone.  In the words of the Wall Street Journal, a successful effort would give employers “more leeway to create worker-management teams, which could be used to thwart unions.”

Since passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, however, it has been an unfair labor practice for employers to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or to contribute financial or other support to labor organizations.  In a pair of 1995 cases called Electromation and Du Pont, the NLRB  found that employers violate this provision by unilaterally establishing employee committees to address workplace concerns such as safety, rates of pay, or other terms and conditions of employment.  This is true whether the employer’s employees are unionized or not.

In 1995, Congress passed the so-called TEAM Act, which would have amended the National Labor Relations Act to permit employer dominated committees.  In 1996, however, President Clinton vetoed the TEAM Act because of the long history of employers using employer dominated committees to defeat employee rights to self organization. 

After the demise of the TEAM Act, the anti-union Labor Policy Association took a new tack in the effort to eviscerate the long established rule against employer dominated committees.   Specifically, the Labor Policy Association filed a complaint under NAFTA claiming that the provision of the National Labor Relations Act making it an unfair labor practice for employers to dominate labor organizations violates NAFTA provisions geared towards promoting greater employee involvement in the workplace. 

With the Bush Administration in control of the White House and the Republicans in control of the Congress, it shouldn’t take too long for the TEAM Act’s sibling to appear.  But this time there will be no veto!  Defeating this gross power grab will require organization and activity.  Do it now!