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Car Dealer Illegally Threatens Workers Against Unionizing

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Just in time for Labor Day comes a (relative) success for union organizers. The Seventh Circuit slapped down an auto dealership which threatened its employees against unionizing last Friday. When workers at Libertyville Toyota in Illinois began organizing, the dealership's owner, AutoNation, called them together to warn them against unionizing, saying that they would face wage cuts and blacklisting if they did. AutoNation is the largest auto chain in the country.

One sly employee surreptitiously recorded one of the meetings, conducted by two AutoNation executives. Those recordings lead to the Seventh Circuit's recent ruling against the company.

Libertyville Toyota Doesn't Recognize Your Liberty to Unionize

In 2011, some of the 140 Libertyville Toyota employees began to discuss unionizing. When management heard about the workers' plans, they held a series of brief meetings with workers to "discuss" unionization. The last meeting was joined by two executives from AutoNation, the dealership's owner and the largest auto retailer in the U.S. That included AutoNation's vice president and associate general counsel Brian Davis.

The meeting was long. The recorded transcript runs 111 pages in total. During that time, Davis warned workers that unionization would be futile and implied that salary negotiations could result in them making less than their current $10.50 an hour. He also implied that workers could be demoted or blacklisted if they unionized, but rewarded if they did not. Soon after, the company fired one of the organizers of the union drive.

Hedged Threats Are Threats Nonetheless

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers sued, alleging AutoNation engaged in an unfair labor practice by interfering with workers' unionization efforts and firing a pro-union employee. The National Labor Relations Act makes it an unfair labor practice "to interfere with, retrain, or coerce employees" seeking to unionize. The NLRB had found that AutoNation had done just that an opinion the Seventh Circuit found was upheld with sufficient evidence.

Davis, of course, had not come out and threateend direct demotion, retaliation, or blacklisting should the employees unionize. Rather, his words were hedged, the threats implied. Davis emphasized other unionized shops where "your brothers and sisters from other dealerships ... have been living that nightmare." Because bargaining isn't automatic, he told workers they may never see any benefits "in your lifetime at the dealership."

AutoNation tried to brush aside these as merely "truthful" accountings of what could happen, but the Seventh wasn't buying it. Even if truthful, the only concrete example offered was an implied threat, the court found. As Judge Diane Wood, writing for the unanimous panel, noted "the workers in Davis's example were AutoNation employees, not characters from a morality play about the pitfalls of unionizing."

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