Arbitrator Reinstates Fired Chrysler Workers as Michigan Goes "Right To Work"

It's been a contentious week for both Chrysler and the United Auto Workers, not to mention organized labor forces across Michigan. Late last week, arbitrators reinstated workers at Chrysler's Jefferson North complex who were caught drinking and smoking during breaks; today, Michigan legislators approved so-called right-to-work legislation.

It's been roughly two years since an investigative reporter for MyFox Detroit found workers at Chrysler's Jefferson North assembly plant drinking and smoking marijuana during sanctioned breaks. The video subsequently went viral, a big publicity setback for then-just-bailed-out Chrysler (and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jefferson North's chief export, one of Chrysler's best models). In the aftermath, Chrysler suspended two workers and fired 13; under the terms of the UAW's collective bargaining agreement with Chrysler, those 13 workers contested the firings by filing grievances. When those grievances were denied by Chrysler, the argument went to arbitration. The arbitrator subsequently ruled that there was insufficient evidence against the workers and reinstated them; the workers returned to the lines last week.

In a statement posted on its blog, Chrysler begrudgingly accepted the verdict, saying "we're in the tough spot of having to accept the arbitrator's decision, just as the union must when the ruling is in favor of the company."

It's a minor setback for Chrysler and a win for the employees, but there's really no time for celebration: in an unrelated move, Michigan legislators dealt a crushing blow to unions like the UAW in approving laws dubbed "right-to-work" by proponents.

Right to work regulations prohibit making union membership--and paying union dues--a condition of employment. At press time, the Republican-led Michigan house approved both a right-to-work bill for public-sector unions (with the exception of emergency first responders) and a second bill aimed at private-sector workers.

The second bill puts the UAW--in which membership is mandatory for workers on the Big Three's Michigan assembly lines--in a precarious position, as membership will go from compulsory to voluntary. Furthermore, it's a huge development for organized labor relations in Michigan, a state where organizing workers were shot at outside Ford's River Rouge Complex in Dearborn in 1932 and attacked near the same plant during a demonstration in 1937. Both were major events in turning public opinion towards auto-sector unions, and the first Ford/UAW contract was signed in 1940. Some 72 years later, polling house Gallup says labor union approval among the American public is at 52 percent, an all-time low.

Will right-to-work cripple the UAW and other unions? The answer depends on what side of the free-market and organized-labor debates you sit on. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Sources: MyFox Detroit, MLive.com, Washington Post, Chrysler

Photos courtesy of Working Michigan

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