The Ugly Face of Union-Busting
Jen Jason started out in the union movement with an internship at the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute and later put the skills she learned to work for UNITE HERE, a union that represents primarily textile and hotel workers. But in the middle of a union organizing campaign, Jason left to become an anti-union management consultant, working for Cintas, whose workers she ostensibly was organizing. Seems she could makea lot more money—her firm made $225,000 the first year she set it up. And she certainly makes a lot more than the laundry workers at Cintas, who are paid between $7 and $9 an hour.
In the high-paid world of union-busting, Jason is a small fry. The so-called "union avoidance" industry is at minimum, a $4 billion-a-year business. But Jason is the modern face of union-busting. At the turn of the 20th century, union-busting took the form of Pinkertons inciting riots on picket lines so the government would have a reason to bash heads and break up strikes. At the turn of the 21st century, the practice is just as ugly—only much more subtle.
John Logan, a professor in the Industrial Relations Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has analyzed this booming U.S. business and found that more and more employers are hiring anti-union consultants with less and less concern about doing so. Logan finds that until the 1970s, union-busting consultants were relatively few—only about 100 firms in the 1960s, compared with more than 10 times that number in the mid-1980s. Further, writes Logan:
Most employers were cautious about hiring consultants and attending union avoidance seminars. In the late 1970s, one consultant recounted that a decade earlier: "Employers used to sneak into [union avoidance] seminars….They were as nervous as whores in church. The posture of major company managers was, 'Let’s not make the union mad at us during the organizing drive or they’ll take it out at the bargaining table.' " That mindset changed dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s…when most employers no longer believed in the inevitability of unionization and shed their inhibitions about recruiting consultants, attending union avoidance seminars, and fighting organizing campaigns.
American Rights at Work, a workers' advocacy group, describes union-busters this way:
Unionbusters operate under the radar intentionally. They often provide material and instructions behind the scenes while the employer’s management and middle-management/supervisory staff carry out the actual communications with workers. In this way, the unionbuster does not deal directly with employees and, as a result, may avoid having to disclose financial reports about such activity to the U.S. Department of Labor. The unionbuster’s name or firm is not used or referenced in the anti-union materials distributed to employees, further masking the unionbuster’s involvement in orchestrating the anti-organizing campaign. More importantly, the anti-union company is rarely called on to divulge that it hired a unionbuster or reveal the specifics of such expenditures. [W]ithout a paper trail, unionbusters are hard to detect, underreported and not in the public eye.
One of the largest such firms, Labor Relations Institute (LRI), offers a "Guaranteed Winner Package." If the corporation doesn't "win"—that is, smash workers' efforts to form a union—it doesn't pay. An LRI promo states:
If your organization purchases an LRI Guaranteed Winner Package and the union becomes certified, Labor Relations Institute will refund the full cost of the package.
Some 82 percent of employers hire high-priced union-busting consultants, according to American Rights at Work. Further, when employers are faced with organizing campaigns:
• 30 percent fire pro-union workers. • 49 percent threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union, but only 2 percent actually do. • 51 percent coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism. • 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.
Chirag Mehta and Nik Theodore at the Center for Urban Economic Development, share an example that illustrates how quickly support for unionization can erode when a management consultant is involved:
As soon as the employer found out the union was involved, they flew in their consultants. They had the consultant working in the nursing home for five straight weeks. We had 35 workers out of 43 who signed cards when we filed for an election. In the last week before the election, we had only 28 workers. Then, on the Monday night before the election, we had a meeting and no one showed up. We lost the election two days later by a landslide, 29 to 12.
But even if employees beat the odds and join to form a union, it doesn't mean they'll get one. Just ask Christopher Bloncourt, a telecommunications technician for Verizon Business. Bloncourt and his co-workers, who troubleshoot phone circuits for corporate clients such as Bank of America, IBM and Microsoft Corp. in the New York metropolitan area, sought to form a union in 2006. Bloncourt became an outspoken leader in support of the union. Soon, he says, it seems he was singled out and his manager was scrutinizing his every move. Worse: A senior manager flew in from Pennsylvania to meet one-on-one with him. Bloncourt says his stomach was constantly turning under the pressure because:
You feel like you’re going to be fired. It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible feeling.
Bloncourt says the company not only sought to send him a message—management meant to warn all workers. The company held several mandatory anti-union meetings trying to scare the workers, while telling them the union just wanted their money and predicting the union would force them out of strike. Break rooms were littered with anti-union literature.
Despite the pressure, the workers signed majority verification cards authorizing the union as their bargaining agent. But Verizon refuses to recognize the workers' choice to form a union. The vote at Verizon happened less than a week after the Employee Free Choice Act passed the House on March 1, which, if law, would level the playing field for employees seeking to form unions.
On hand to oversee the card count at Verizon were three co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act—Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Stephen Lynch and John Tierney, all Democrats from Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tim Murray (see video). Even though this high-power panel verified that 57 percent of the eligible workers signed cards saying they want a union, current labor law means Verizon can ignore workers' wishes. And that's exactly what the company is doing.
The Employee Free Choice Act would require that employees recognize a union after a majority of workers signed cards indicating their desire to form a union. In addition, workers would still be able to choose to form a union through the longer National Labor Relations Board election process.
Verizon already had reneged on an earlier agreement to voluntarily recognize the freedom of employees to union representation when a majority of workers indicated their support. When the company took over MCI in 2005, it inherited a unionized workforce and it's determined to stomp out any further unionization. And under current labor law, the company can do it all legally.
As Logan points out:
Arthur Mendelson, a leading consultant in the field, explained, “Management can do so much within the confines of the law to combat unionism that they need not and should not break the law.”
After all, under current labor law, the only thing corporations have to lose is their employees.