(en)CAQ #60: LABOR SLAPS THE SMUG NEW FACE OF UNION-BUSTING

Rich Winkel (rich@pencil.UTC.EDU)
Thu, 27 Mar 97 17:15:53 CST


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/** covertaction: 64.0 **/ ** Topic: Union Busting ** ** Written 12:53 PM Mar 25, 1997 by caq in cdp:covertaction ** LABOR SLAPS THE SMUG NEW FACE OF UNION-BUSTING by David Bacon

Unionbusting has traditionally been a dirty business, dominated by consultants, law firms, and private guards conducting scorched-earth campaigns against unions in strikes and National Labor Relations Board ( NLRB) elections. It still is.

But just as unions have begun a period of transformation, becoming more committed to organizing and better at it, unionbusting has expanded. The state of the art now includes sophisticated efforts to forestall organizing drives by creating company-dominated organizations in the workplace and by manipulating demographics to create a "union-proof"work force. Whole industries are now contracted out, so that workers, in the eyes of the law, are no longer even the direct employees of the corporations that nevertheless control their lives.

Two years ago, the highest profile union organizing group in the country, Justice for Janitors, met some of this new corporate thinking head-on. Having previously organized most janitors in California's Silicon Valley and neighboring Alameda County, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, one of the country's fastest-growing unions, moved its organizing crew to Sacramento, the state capital. Its target was Somers Building Maintenance, a key employer with large and profitable contracts to clean state buildings and the facilities of major corporations, including Hewlett-Packard.

After winning workers' support, Local 1877 asked Somers to recognize the union based on a check of authorization cards. *1 The company refused. Within weeks, an ex-supervisor and the wife of another supervisor began going through Hewlett-Packard buildings at night, collecting signatures for the Couriers and Service Employees Local 1, a little-known union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Somers quickly recognized Local 1, signed a contract with no wage increases, and began giving preferential treatment to workers affiliated with the company union. Meanwhile, workers claiming to be Local 1 representatives threatened Local 1877 supporters; two workers were attacked and beaten. *2

Eventually, the NLRB issued a complaint, calling Local 1 a company union. Somers settled the charge and kicked the organization out.

Somers' company union marked a new and sophisticated effort to defeat one of today's unions most successful strategies typified by Justice for Janitors' campaigns.Many union observers credit the effort to the West Coast's premier anti-union law firm, Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy, ranked No. 2 on a national list of unionbusters maintained by the AFL-CIO. The firm is the largest specifically anti-labor law firm in the country, with 270 attorneys in 20 cities, and revenues of $72 million in 1995.

Somers and Littler tried to find a weak point in Justice for Janitors' campaign strategy, which rallies many-sided pressures on building owners. Union organizers build community coalitions to mount boycotts, document violations of worker protection laws, and file barrages of court actions. Union members and supporters conduct rallies, demonstrations, and sit-ins, often using civil disobedience to back up organizing efforts.

But at Somers, while SEIU Local 1877 mounted pressure from outside the workplace, the company used Local 1 to create a climate of fear among the workers themselves. Those who supported the company union were given better treatment,and some were even chosen as stewards. Somers created a small core of employees who identified strongly with the company, while supporters of Local 1877 had to fight just to keep their jobs.

Somers found another ally in Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who held hearings of the House government oversight committee to push a longer-term Republican agenda entirely barring corporate campaign tactics such as those used by Justice for Janitors. Marlene Somsak, a public relations spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, referred to the campaign as "the use of neutral parties as battlegrounds."

OFF WITH ITS HEAD Employers and their political allies want to force union organizing drives back into the legal process of NLRB elections, while the whole Justice for Janitors strategy is an effort to avoid them.That says a lot about how distorted the legal system has become. "Sometimes I think the National Labor Relations Act should be repealed," comments AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger bitterly. "What could be worse than this?"3

Joe Uehlein, past secretary of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department and now director of its Department of Strategic Campaigns, points out that classic unionbusting has always been reactive. Employers respond both to the prospect that workers might organize a union and to the specific tactics unions use. "We set the battlefield; they have to react to it," he asserts."That's why they want to make us deal with the NLRB. They control that process, and they know how to win using it."4

And win they do. Unions lose about half the NLRB elections, and more in larger companies than smaller ones. Even worse, they win contracts with only half of the companies where workers vote for union representation. Bensinger explains that "NLRB elections force unions into a propaganda war in which they have to convince workers that life can be better in the future if they're organized." Management has a full array of weapons. Using a barrage of legal tactics, anti-union law firms try to carve out a bargaining unit of workers with a minimum of union support. They delay elections as long as possible to give management a chance to reverse union support through intense, one-on-one conversations with supervisors. In captive audience meetings that workers are forced to attend, management issues threats and promises and asks for "a second chance." Unionbusters show videos depicting violent strikes, while carefully-coached management representatives tell workers they'll have to strike if the union wins.

"In the meantime, the union is excluded from the workplace entirely and has no way of stopping illegal activity before the voting takes place," Bensinger says. "The fact is, workers don't really have the right to organize unions." *5

Unionbusting consultants have thrived as the legal process has grown more and more skewed. When Local 2850 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) began its organizing drive at the Lafayette Park Hotel in an upper class San Francisco suburb, hotel managers brought in the American Consulting Group (ACG, No. 31 on the AFL-CIO list). *6 In short order, the hotel fired two of the most active union supporters and laid the necessary bedrock of any anti-union campaign: fear. Nationally, the AFL-CIO estimates that one in ten workers participating in a union organizing campaign is fired."Preemption is the unionbusters' philosophy,"explains Local 2850 President Jim Dupont. "Their approach is `take the head off before it has a chance to grow.'"7

When the Lafayette Park fired Socorro Zapien, management undoubtedly knew she was a union supporter. According to Dupont, the hotel had sent a spy to union meetings. *8 The hotel denied the charge to the NLRB. She was accused of taking a chocolate bar, a charge she denied, and going early to her coffee break. Zapien had no previous disciplinary record. Nevertheless, the NLRB refused to demand that the hotel rehire her. The board follows the Riteline decision, which says that if there is any business reason unrelated to union activity for a firing, no matter how unlikely, termination is legal. Even if the board does finally order reinstatement, the process can take years and workers have already learned the price for supporting the union.

At the Lafayette Park Hotel, the firings were combined with raises and increases in benefits. Unions suspect that ACG consultants trained supervisors to identify and isolate pro-union workers, pressured the undecided, and helped form anti-union employee committees standard unionbuster tactics during NLRB election campaigns. "After all that, there was no way we could have a fair election there," Dupont says. *9

Local 2850 countered with an increasingly common step among unions that find the NLRB process fails to protect workers or to penalize employers for illegal action: It turned to direct pressure. HERE organized pickets and enlisted immigrant rights activists and religious supporters to march against the hotel. It also announced a boycott. Weddings, parties, and conferences were canceled, either in solidarity or because of the unattractive atmosphere. The union spread its activity to two other northern California hotels owned by the same company. This is just the kind of campaign that Rep. Hoekstra and congressional Republicans are trying to ban through legislation.

ACG responded with extensive public relations work to undermine the boycott. It pressured city council members to pass a city ordinance (later found unconstitutional) against the marches, and tried to restrict the union through injunctions against the union's free speech and direct action tactics. ACG also brought in another consultant, Lupe Cruz, to deal with the mostly Latina, immigrant work force.

The Lafayette Park Hotel campaign is still going on. Unions adopting this approach have to have a long-term commitment. But it often succeeds where the NLRB process fails. After a similar four-year fight by Local 2 at San Francisco's Parc 55 Hotel, management gave in and signed a contract.

BLOOD & GUTS STRIKEBREAKERS The classic strategy for breaking already-organized unions hiring scabs received its blessing from the Reagan administration in its handling of the PATCO strike in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan ordered the firing of 7,000 air traffic controllers. It was baptized in fire in 1983 in the bitter Arizona copper miners' strike at Phelps Dodge. That two-year-long strike was "really the start of the modern process of permanent replacement of strikers by scabs," according to Joe Uehlein. "We still haven't, as a movement, understood its impact, much less recovered from it." *10

Since Phelps Dodge, the list of companies hiring scabs to break strikes is a roll call of the major class battles of the 1980s and 1990s: Continental Airlines, Eastern Airlines, International Paper, Greyhound, Caterpillar, Hormel, Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods, Diamond Walnut, Pittston, Wheeling-Pittsburgh, USX, and many others.

Not all of these battles have been won by employers, but the pattern of attack is basically the same. In 1995, management of the Detroit News, owned by Gannett Publications, and the Detroit Free Press, owned by Knight-Ridder, put demands on the table to replace cost-of-living raises with merit increases and to replace union jobs with non-union positions. Knowing the terms would be unacceptable to unions and hoping for a strike, they made arrangements with national consulting firms and with the local police. Four months before the strike, the Detroit Newspaper Agency, a joint operation of both newspapers to share production and distribution facilities, promised to compensate the Sterling Heights Police Department for overtime costs from shepherding scabs into the plant. By the time the strike was a year old, the newspapers had paid out $2.1 million. *11

The newspapers also lined up hired guns to handle scabs, legal affairs, PR, and security. A good-sized industry of such support institutions exists. One of the largest companies specializing in providing replacement workers, BE&K, maintains a data bank with the names of hundreds of workers who travel the country from strike to strike. The newspapers contracted with one of BE&K's rivals, Alternative Work Force (AWF), for 580 scabs. They also brought in the veteran anti-union law firm of King and Ballow (No. 29 on the AFL-CIO list). *12 This company has masterminded a series of newspaper wars in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, and San Francisco, among other cities. Standard legal strategy during strikes rests on convincing friendly judges to issue injunctions to virtually eliminate picketing, so that scabs can pass freely in and out.

To guard the scabs, the newspapers first hired Huffmaster Security, another company which, like AWF, has made lots of money in the newspaper wars. *13 In the first four months of the strike, Huffmaster and AWF were paid $2.3 million for supplying 480 guards and 580 scabs. Huffmaster, which is suing the papers for $1.6 million more, *14 was replaced by a larger, even more notorious, security firm, Vance International, whose guards sport black uniforms and combat boots. The effect is startling, as Cleveland teachers learned in fall 1996 while they prepared to strike. "When uniformed out-of-state security forces invaded a Cleveland high school ... complete with shields, bulletproof vests, cots, and in some cases sidearms, we now realize that the education of Cleveland children [was] the last thought on the minds of the state officials running strike preparations," commented Ohio State Representative Vermel M. Whalen. *15

Nor is the menacing image purely for show. In Detroit, 20 Vance guards beat striker Vito Sciuto with a stick, breaking his skull. In comments to a reporter afterwards, a Vance employee said the guards wanted "to hurt people." *16

This reputation makes money for Vance; its 1995 strikebreaking activity grossed $90 million of the $25 billion private security industry. *17 But its real success, according to company founder Chuck Vance, lies in its use of video cameras. During the strike at the Pittston Coal Co., for instance, Vance collected thousands of hours of videotapes. Courts hostile to miners in the coalfields used the tapes to justify $64 million in fines against the United Mine Workers, fines later overturned by the Supreme Court.

The tapes are also useful after a strike is over to ensure that active union members are not rehired and that "troublemakers" are dealt with. While there is basically no punishment for companies if scabs threaten or injure strikers, the NLRB has held that any striker who threatens scabs, or even insults them, can be fired. When the United Auto Workers struck Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois, Vance's Asset Protection Team pushed and shoved strikers and family members in order to provoke confrontations it could video. Guards followed strikers to their homes.Caterpillar striker Ron Heller monitored a police radio conversation mentioning a list of "troublemakers."In later legal action, he uncovered records that indicate Vance supplied a list of active union members to local police.

The results, so far, have pleased the management of the Detroit papers. Frank Vega, CEO of Detroit Newspaper Agency, said "we would have waited three or four more contracts to get to where this strike has gotten us."18

THE MODERNCOMPANY UNION Companies use different tactics in dealing with workers trying to organize than they use to break existing unions like those conducting the newspaper strikes. Not far from the Lafayette Park, another, larger, hotel chain is implementing a sophisticated strategy to block union organizing before it starts. The Hyatt Hotel in Sacramento has set up peer review committees where workers can go with problems they can't resolve with their supervisors. The committees consist of two supervisors and three employees chosen by the aggrieved worker from a list of employees who have gone through conflict resolution training. The important part of this process, according to HERE 2850's Dupont, is that"it creates the semblance of justice."19 In other words, it seems like workers don't need a union to resolve their problems.

After General Electric defeated a union drive at its Mattoon, Illinois plant in 1991, it hired Caras and Associates of Columbia, Maryland, to set up similar peer reviews. The strategy, designed to stave off a second unionizing effort, also insulated the company from discrimination complaints. "Once [government] investigators see the peer review approach," noted GE specialist Jack Hoffman, "they usually don't even go through the paperwork." *20

Peer review committees are only a small part of a much larger picture. Modern personnel practices in large corporations try to inoculate workers against the idea of organizing or taking sides against management. This sophisticated unionbusting strategy is a modern-day version of company unionism.

Much of this strategy was developed in Silicon Valley during the Cold War. *21 From the beginning, high-tech workers have faced an industry-wide, anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who helped invent the transistor and later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that "remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. ... This is a very high priority for management here." *22

Expanding electronics plants were laboratories for personnel-management techniques for maintaining a "union-free environment." These techniques, which focused on the team method for organizing workers, were later used against unions in other industries, from auto-manufacturing to steel-making.

Silicon Valley hearings of the Commission on the Future of Labor Management Relations, the Dunlop Commission,held in January of 1994, gave the public a first-hand look at high-tech labor/management cooperation. According to Pat Hill-Hubbard, senior vice president of the American Electronics Association, "employees have become decision-makers, and management has practically disappeared."23 Doug Henton, representing Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, an industry/government policy group, was even more blunt. "Unions as they have existed in the past are no longer relevant," he said. "Labor law of 40 years ago is not appropriate to 20th century economics."24

In the high-performance workplace, asserted Phuli Siddiqi, an Intel worker who gave part of her company's presentation, work teams give employees a voice. She described "worker ownership of projects and products," and the company's employee recognition program, "Pat on the Back." *25

In the early years of the electronics industry, companies paid relatively low wages, but they attempted to equal, and sometimes surpass, union benefits, providing medical and dental plans and even sick leave. Hewlett-Packard even promised never to lay off workers.

Today, however, permanent jobs are being abolished. Half the work force in many large electronics plants works for temporary agencies, without any benefits, and at much lower salaries. *26

"The company always told us they had to be competitive," said Romie Manan, a worker at National Semiconductor Corp.'s non-union Santa Clara plant:

"Increasing the company's profitability, they said, would increase our job security. That was the purpose of our workteams. Then the company took the ideas contributed by the experienced work force in Santa Clara, which they got through the team meetings, and used them to organize new labs with inexperienced workers in Arlington, Texas, where wages are much lower. The experienced workers lost their jobs. The team meetings stole our experience and ideas, and didn't give us any power to protect our jobs and families.27"

Manan lost his own job, as did more than 30,000 semiconductor workers on production lines in Silicon Valley in the last 10 years.

Through its 50-year existence, the semiconductor industry has successfully prevented workers from organizing unions by combining the lure of labor- management cooperation with the threat of job loss. This model of unionbusting does not depend on outside consultants, but on the expertise of companies' own human relations departments. The strategy is less reactive than the traditional approach and is in place on a constant basis, whether organizing attempts are in progress or not.

The ideologues of this approach consider union organizing drives a punishment for companies which have failed. Kirby Dyess, Intel's vice president of human relations, says that when workers organize unions, "it is a failure of management." *28

Although many of the new structures for labor/management cooperation are currently illegal, corporations are lobbying hard to change that. After the Republican sweep of the 1994 elections, both the Senate and House passed the Team Act, which weakens the portion of the NLRA Section 8(a)(2) which prohibits company unions. Looking for labor support in 1996, President Clinton vetoed the bill. Congressional observers, however, think that its reintroduction is still possible.

A "UNION PROOF" WORK FORCE Modern unionbusting combines the paternalism of the company union with another sophisticated strategy designing a "union-proof" work force. This is also a spin on old ideas. John Sayles' film Matewan, for example, recalls the effort by coal operators in the 1920s to bring immigrants of one nationality or race to scab on the strikes of another.

In Los Angeles, cleaning contractors in office buildings in the mid-1980s dumped their largely African American union work force, shed their union contracts, and hired immigrants.

Today in the Midwest and Southeast, the burgeoning poultry industry is using the same strategy. Some of the largest food corporations in the world, such as ConAgra, systematically recruit immigrant workers. They believe that an immigrant work force has several advantages: In the eyes of managers, immigrant workers not only have low wage expectations, but are less likely to support unions because they face an unknown and unfriendly environment, immigration problems, and are ignorant of their rights.

While profitable in the short run, however, using immigrants as a bulwark against unions may prove to be many companies' undoing. In Los Angeles in 1991, hundreds of immigrant janitors were attacked by police as they marched for the union in Century City. Public outrage was so great that the building owners and contractors were forced to sign new union agreements. The battle put Justice for Janitors on the national labor radar screen.

Immigrant construction workers in southern California were also brought in to replace a higher-wage work force in the 1980s. But a movement organized largely by immigrants themselves first struck drywall contractors in 1992, and then framing contractors in 1995. They won union contracts for thousands of workers in some of the first bottom-up, grassroots organizing drives in the construction industry since the 1930s. *29

Many immigrants bring militant traditions with them from their home countries, and have high expectations of social and economic justice. The Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project has established a new center for immigrant-based organizing, to support mobilizing drives in the largest concentration of industrial workers in the world.

With the new welfare reform bill and preexisting programs to force welfare recipients into the job market, employers have seen another source of a potentially "union-proof" work force. Cities have already begun looking at workfare recipients as a pool of low-cost labor that can replace unionized employees.

Last August, negotiating with a gun to its head, New York's Transit Union was forced to agree that 500 union jobs cleaning subways would be eliminated through attrition, while hundreds of workfare recipients took over those tasks. *30 While a few workfare recipients may eventually get permanent jobs, that transition was clearly not what the Metropolitan Transit Authority had in mind. Its goal is a work force of subway cleaners paid the equivalent of minimum wage for doing the same job that union employees now perform for a much higher one.

New York City uses a growing number of workfare recipients and will expand its workfare work force to 60,000 by 1998. Many of the city's unions have criticized the municipal workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 37, for not mounting a more aggressive challenge to the city's growing workfare program. Stung by the criticism, District Executive Director Stanley Hill finally called for a moratorium on expansion beyond the present 35,000 enrollees. *31

Public employee unions have historically supported jobs for welfare recipients and unemployed people. But workfare, they say, offers no solution, because there's no guarantee of an eventual permanent job paying a liveable wage. "When you flood the labor market with workfare recipients," explains Fran Bernstein from AFSCME's national office, "you see enormous wage depression for the bottom third of the work force. That's intentional." *32

What unions want is a basic bill of rights for workfare recipients, including the right to the same wage and treatment given other employees, the right to organize unions, and protection from unfair and arbitrary discipline. *

Private employers are also eyeing the possibilities. Marriott Corp., which made one of the first efforts to bring workfare into its work force, emphasizes that it supports and counsels recipients about problems such as tardiness, rather than simply disciplining or firing them as it does with other workers.

But for workfare recipients, the weekly benefit check is all that stands between them and the streets. That's an advantage to a company like Marriott, which has mounted a scorched-earth fight to keep its regular employees from organizing unions. Employers contend recipients are not workers at all, and have no right to organize or file complaints against health and safety dangers or discrimination.

In September, President Clinton urged expansion of workfare in the private sector. "We cannot create enough public-service jobs to hire these folks," he said, adding that "this has basically got to be a private-sector show." *33

But with no guarantee about maintaining existing wage levels or protecting the rights of workfare recipients, welfare reform pits them against currently-employed workers in a race to the bottom. It promises to transform jobs that can support families into ones that can't, and to rob the people who perform them of security, job rights, and their dignity as workers.

CAN THE BUSTERS BE BEATEN? "For over 10 years, employers have been ruthless and sophisticated," Bensinger says, "and there have been a lot of seminars given by unionbusters cashing in on their interest." *34

It's clear that employers have their eyes on unions' most innovative strategies. Following the election of John Sweeney in October 1995, the No. 1 law firm on the AFL-CIO's list, Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler and Krupman, gave seminars to drill employers on the "The AFL-CIO's `Union Yes' Campaign." The conference prospectus noted the increase in the AFL-CIO's organizing budget,the rising interest in "militant and creative new organizing tactics," including "obstruct the economy" and "go to jail," and advertised sessions on the peer review committee strategy and the Electromation case, which bans modern company unions.35

Like unions, unionbusters learn from experience. After years of seeing the United Farm Workers hold big marches during organizing drives, for instance, last year strawberry growers in Watsonville, California, organized their own march of workers opposed to the union. Understanding the importance of public opinion, growers hired their own PR agency, the Dolphin Group of Los Angeles, to manage their image.

Direct activity by anti-union consultants and law firms, and their strikebreaking guards, is a big obstacle to the survival and growth of unions. But in the long term, the new face of unionbusting may prove to have an even greater effect. The newest and fastest growing industries electronics, biotechnology, and others have developed an anti-union structure which workers have yet to crack on a large scale. The use of chronic unemployment and social policies such as welfare

and immigration reform pits workers against each other in desperate competition.

Fighting against unionbusting, therefore, is not simply a matter of using more intelligent and innovative tactics. Labor has to fight for a social agenda that includes the repeal of welfare reform, and supports racial and gender equality and equity between immigrant and native-born workers.

Organizing the unemployed may prove to be as important as organizing in the workplace. Just preserving the overall percentage of organized workers takes more than 400,000 new union members a year, a rate the AFL-CIO has yet to achieve. While trained, full-time organizers are necessary, as is a commitment to using more sophisticated and militant strategies, clearly the 15 million US union members must become more involved in union activity. That requires structural changes within unions, increasing the involvement of ordinary members in decision-making, and reducing the often-wide gulf that separates leadership from rank-and-file.

In US labor history, large-scale union organizing has always been part of a broader social movement fighting for the interests of all workers, organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed. The company unions, the violence of strikebreakers, and the lack of legal rights which faced workers in the 1920s were swept away a decade later.

The upsurge among millions of American workers, radicalized by the Depression and left-wing activism, forced corporate acceptance of labor for the first time in the country's history. That activism mobilized the power of workers to overcome obstacles not dissimilar to those of the present. They projected a vision of social and economic change that went far beyond, and directly in contradiction to, the prevailing wisdom of its time.

The current changes in labor may be the beginning of something as large and profound. If they are, then the obstacles erected by present-day unionbusters can become a historical relic as quickly as did those of an earlier era. ---END--- CAQ SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION CAQ (CovertAction Quarterly) has won numerous awards for investigative journalism. In 1996 it swept "Project Censored" top 10 awards for investigative reporting, winning four awards including first place. CAQ is read around the world by investigative reporters, activists, scholars, intelligence buffs, news junkies, and anyone who wants to know the news and analysis behind the soundbites and headlines. Recommended by Noam Chomsky; targeted by the CIA.

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