In Tulsa, Okla., the UAW tried twice and failed to organize more than 650 hourly workers who make school buses at an IC Bus factory.
But in February 2013, after a new management team declared it would not resist a third organizing campaign, the union won. Over the next eight months, the UAW and Navistar, which owns IC Bus, negotiated a new contract covering the Tulsa workers.
Neutrality agreements are not new. They've been around for decades in the labor movement. But they are rarely used in organizing campaigns today.
"That is because employer neutrality is the labor relations equivalent of unilateral disarmament," said Gary Klotz, a partner with Butzel Long who normally represents companies on labor issues.
After three decades in which the political and judicial climate has blessed most management tactics aimed at defeating organized labor, why would any company choose neutrality?
The UAW's relationship with Lisle, Ill.-based Navistar's top executives played a key role.
CEO Troy Clarke, who joined Navistar in January 2010 as senior vice president, was intimately familiar with the UAW. He negotiated General Motors' contracts with the UAW when he was head of GM manufacturing and labor relations and as president of GM North America.
Also, Dennis Williams, who was elected president of the UAW earlier this month, has been a Navistar board member since 2006.
"Under Navistar's new leadership, the company's relationship with the UAW has been evolving in a more positive direction," Steve Schrier, spokesman for Navistar, said in an e-mail.
Joseph Barker, a retired regional director at the National Labor Relations Board, said he began noticing in 2005 that the UAW is able to use neutrality agreements more frequently than most other unions.
"I think in the auto industry, some of it was because of tradition. The Detroit Three were organized, and the UAW had relationships already in place with them," Barker said. "And the Detroit Three wanted to make sure their auto suppliers were not going to have labor problems if there was an organizing drive going on."
But neutrality remains the exception in an environment that is hostile to most unions. Now that the right-to-work movement has penetrated Indiana and Michigan, even companies in that portion of the industrial Midwest will be emboldened to resist.
The climate is not growing any more hospitable in the South, either.
Just last week, the UAW filed charges with the NLRB against Renosol Seating, a subsidiary of Southfield-based Lear, for harassing workers. The union postponed a vote at the plant in Selma, Ala.
Most manufacturers are looking for the lowest-cost labor possible and the most generous tax incentives and training subsidies when they build a new plant.
Labor's staunchest enemies, such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, know the courts are relatively receptive to their arguments.
In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that a neutrality agreement between Unite Here and a Florida casino violated a section of the Labor Management Relations Act. The law forbids an employer to "pay, lend, or deliver ... any money or other thing of value" to a labor union seeking to organize the company's workers.
The casino, according to the 11th Circuit, violated that act because the union spent about $100,000 to support a 2006 referendum to allow slot machines. Last December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider organized labor's appeal.
Despite that legal setback, the UAW has found some universities and casinos willing to grant neutrality, including the University of Connecticut and New York University, where the UAW won elections in the last year to represent graduate teaching assistants.
The UAW now represents more than 45,000 academic workers across the U.S. including graduate employees at the University of Massachusetts, University of Washington, University of California and California State University. Since 2009, nine of every 10 new UAW members came from elections in which the company's management did not actively oppose the organizing effort, according to a UAW report provided to members earlier this month.
As the UAW discovered last February, neutrality doesn't guarantee success. Workers at Volkswagen's only U.S. assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., rejected UAW representation despite management's neutrality and the active support of IG Metall, the powerful German metalworkers union. UAW has been using a similar strategy in a campaign to organize Mercedes-Benz's plant in Vance, Ala.
But in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Bob Corker and a host of Republican interest groups mounted a fierce campaign against the UAW, including threats to withdraw tax incentives for expansions at the Chattanooga factory.
"We walked in there really taking the high road. To see that politicians would undermine that process was very disappointing," said Williams, who added that the UAW will learn from its mistakes in Chattanooga. "You look at it, evaluate what you have done well, and then re-examine what did not go so well."
Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely
Original headline: UAW leans heavily on neutrality agreements for organizing wins
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