Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Inside the Minds of Unionbusters

September 2nd, 2008 | Art Levine

Labor Day has become not just a time to for a parting celebration of summer, but for a hardy band of labor advocates to remind the public — at least those who bother to listen — of the perilous state of workers’ rights and economic security.  For instance, Change to Win Chair Anna Burger announced this week new findings about working families’ concerns:

“Decades of decline in wage and benefit levels, the shift of income and wealth from the many to the few, and the unrelenting corporate attack on worker organization has eroded the foundations of the American Dream.” Her solution? Start with restoring the rights of workers so they can be truly free to join unions.

Yet if the potential appeal and value of unions is so great, why are only eight percent of the private workforce members of them?

Both critics and champions of unions often point to decades of bad press lingering from past corruption scandals, ineffective PR and organizing strategies,  and slow-moving labor bureaucracies.

But none of that, no matter how true, accounts completely for the pathetically low rate of union membership. That’s why it’s become a cherished goal of workers’ advocates to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to impose stiff penalties on companies that block union organizing while allowing workers to freely choose to join unions without getting fired.

But there’s been less attention paid to the mindset of the lawyers and consultants who make up the multi-billion dollar unionbusting industry so critical to the underhanded strategies designed to thwart union campaigns. Last year, I published an article about going undercover to just such a unionbusting seminar in In These Times, and I discovered just how wily these lawyers could be — while going right up to the edge of legality.

All too often, of course, some companies and unionbusters simply break the law in practice. As pioneering Cornell University labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner has found, in at least 25 percent of organizing campaigns, companies illegally fire workers because they want to join a union.

But the attorneys from Jackson Lewis, a leading “union avoidance” firm, told the 20 or so representatives from small and large companies, such as UPS and Harmel,  they faced economic peril unless they blocked unions.  And, they argued, unions were no longer necessary — indeed were harmful — in the modern global economy. The senior attorney, recalling how his father was a dockworker, contended, “We believe that the union is irrelevant for the 21st century,” adding, unfortunately, “unions have new weapons” — including the dreaded “public campaign” that creates a PR nightmare.

I was inside that Las Vegas hotel’s conference room, legitimately, as a vice-president of my family’s tiny real estate company, but I was pretending to be concerned about SEIU organizing among janitors at some (mythical) apartment complexes our family owned.

And the veteran attorney was there, in part, to drum up business by feeding corporate paranoia about unions: “They’ll attempt to destroy you no matter how good you are. The better you are, the bigger target you are.”

Fortunately, they explained, there was always a legal way to bust unions. For instance, one younger attorney advised us, when asked how we could fire a worker who was organizing, that it was indeed possible to do so.  But we had to be careful to do it for other reasons. “Union sympathizers aren’t entitled to any more protection than other workers,” he explained. But the firing could not be linked to their union activity.

At the same time, the attorney, when talking about supervisors sympathetic to unions, offered a glimpse into the hard-nosed tactics that remained unspoken in their public presentation. “You know what we do with a supervisor who comes to you and says, ‘Hey, boss, it wasn’t me, they said it was the company?'”, the lawyer asked. He jerked his tie upwards against his neck to suggest a hanging—the only time the lawyers openly hinted at lawbreaking.

Yet in that one moment, he helped me understand the harsh reality behind all the legalisms, delays and loopholes that allow corporations to continue to crush unions and those who wish to join them. On Labor Day, it’s time not only to remember workers in unions but those who want the opportunity to join them for the economic and benefits protection they offer,  but can’t do so by the legalized unionbusting enabled by today’s feeble laws.

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, AlterNet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed  Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

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