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Busting the unionbusting

Busting the unionbusting
Portland, Oregon

It's been over a year now since the votes in the union election were tabulated at the Precision Castparts Corporation plant here on the southern edge of Portland. But the handful of workers I eat dinner with, who originally cooked up the organizing drive, still seem to be in a state of shock. During two separate runs--one in the spring of 1995 and another in the fall of 1996--these shop-floor employees, supported by the United Steelworkers, managed to sign up two-thirds of their 1,800 fellow aerospace workers. Yet the union lost both contests, the second one a humiliating 2-to-1 defeat.

"What makes the plight of the P.C.C. workers so special," says A.F.L.-C.I.O. organizing director Richard Bensinger, "is that their case is not special at all." What happened at P.C.C. shows how, under current labor law, employers can ruthlessly smash union campaigns legally. And it's why Bensinger and the national A.F.L. leadership are now talking about the imperative of a high-profile "civil-rights-like" crusade, as the federation describes it, focusing on the right to organize.

History shows why the unions, whose membership remained flat in 1997 at 12.9 million, have reached this conclusion. Since its passage sixty-three years ago, the National Labor Relations Act has undergone a steady anti-union transformation. In its original form, it barred employers in most cases from interfering in union organizing drives. The ground rules were simple: A majority of employees at a work site could sign cards asking for a union. If there was any legitimate doubt about a union's contention that it had won over a majority of the workers, the National Labor Relations Board would hold an election. Otherwise, there would be a union, and management would have to negotiate a contract.

But since World War II, Congressional amendments to the act and federal court rulings in favor of "employer free speech," which together make it legal for companies to get directly involved in the election process, have radically tilted the once-level playing field against workers. Federal judges from the Reagan/Bush era have been particularly active on this front. So when American workers today try to form a union, they are usually immediately confronted by a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry of management consultants, propagandists and unionbusters.

As a consequence, it's no longer enough merely to sign up a majority of pro-union workers. What was once the final step of a simple process is now only the first hurdle in a hellish obstacle course. Votes on union representation are routinely stalled for months by employers, during which time the work force is browbeaten and gone over like wet clay. Workers are legally subjected to anti-union meetings and implicitly threatened with layoffs and shutdowns. Supervisors and consultants hold one-on-one meetings with workers that are clearly intended to be intimidating. Unions are prohibited from campaigning on-site. And if all else fails, employers invoke the ultimate sanction: Harvard law professor Paul Weiler estimates that due to lax enforcement by the N.L.R.B., 10,000 Americans illegally lose their jobs each year for having supported union campaigns.

The result is that the United States has the most restrictive labor organizing atmosphere of any of the world's industrialized democracies. In the early fifties unions won almost three-fourths of all representation elections. Today, that figure has slipped to below 50 percent. Combine that with laws that allow employers to replace strikers permanently with other workers, weak penalties against employers who do break the law and a fading historical memory of the power that unions bring to workers, and you have a recipe for catastrophe. "We either change the law, or put enough pressure to forgo elections, or, no matter how re-activated we become, we simply are not going to be able to organize any new industrywide unions in this country," says a top A.F.L. official who doesn't want to be quoted by name for fear of appearing too openly pessimistic and therefore dampening what organizing drives there are. "The big union victories of the John Sweeney period have involved unions--like the Service Employees and the Teamsters--originally founded when the law was more on our side. What chance would we have today of organizing a new union on the scale of the Teamsters?"

What has happened over the past three years at P.C.C. is a cautionary case study of the challenge labor faces if it wishes to survive into the next century. Forget about nationwide unions; it's become almost impossible to organize even a single aggressive company.

The union insurgency surfaced at P.C.C. a few years ago not because times were bad but because of an aerospace industry boom. Highly skilled P.C.C. workers, who produce parts mostly for G.E.-built jet engines, found themselves making about half the industry average wage of $25 an hour. With at least forty factories across the country, the company was prospering from the regional aerospace revival but was allowing little of its prosperity to flow downward. (For the first nine months of its current fiscal year, P.C.C. had earnings of $62 million on sales of $962 million.) "What got the ball rolling was a February 1995 company memo," says 49-year-old grinder Bob Carter. "After four years of no raises, the company sent us this letter saying we are still overpaid."

Carter, and some of the other workers I met with, immediately called in the Steelworkers to help them form a union. With some professional organizers on the ground and worker resentment red hot, the results were phenomenal. "We put some [authorization] cards out and I think we got back two to three hundred in the first week or two," says Jerry Perpich, a Steelworkers staff representative. Weeks of house meetings followed and soon the organizing committee had gathered more than 1,100 sign-up cards. But when the company refused to recognize the union, an election became inevitable.

"In retrospect, the company attitude toward that first drive was low key," says 56-year-old X-ray technician Bill Jacobson, a shop-floor organizer. But it was enough to tip the balance against the union, which lost the election several months later by a 52-to-48 margin. "Though the company was not outrageous, it did violate a number of rules and we filed our complaints," says Perpich. "The N.L.R.B. ruled in our favor, and a new election was ordered." And that's when the full-scale, albeit mostly one-sided, war broke out.

The union campaign for the second election, which got under way in 1996, quickly snowballed. With twenty-five professional organizers sent in by the A.F.L.'s organizing department, 900 workers were contacted in the first three weeks of house visits. A kickoff meeting brought out 250 people. New authorization cards were sent out. Of the 1,600 employees identified as part of an eventual bargaining unit, again, a whopping 1,100 signed up for the union in the first three weeks.

"But this time the company had the unionbusters warmed up and waiting in the wings for us," says Jacobson. The lead unionbuster in this case was the Malibu, California-based Burke Group. For the next few months, an average of a half-dozen or more consultants from these two groups were permanently on-site.

The first move was to keep delaying the election. The company maintained that several hundred supervisory employees were really line workers and should be considered in the voting unit. This demand alone led to a full month of hearings before a lethargic local labor board, which resulted in the adding of 200 mostly pro-company members to the union's voting ranks. "It was nearly five months between the time we filed for an election and when we got one," says Pat Maloney, who says he was fired from P.C.C. because of his union activism. "The delay is what killed us."

In one-on-one meetings, managers who had been well briefed by consultants would pointedly mention a new mortgage, a new child, a new debt obligation taken on by workers. Anti-union buttons, leaflets, T-shirts and hats were distributed on the floor. Supervisors began attitude polling. A white line was painted around the plant indicating the legal limit inside which leafleting wasn't permitted. Smear publications, one titled "The Steel Curtain," sprouted to disparage union organizers and pro-union workers.

"They just dogged us like crazy," says Donna Reiner, a precision assembler. "Three or four stand-up meetings per day, which would cause a work stoppage. Then a speed-up afterwards to make up for lost time." She adds, "They'd huddle you around a TV set and show dust bunnies blowing in front of a closed-down Steelworkers plant." In-plant organizers Jacobson and Chris Webb even found themselves starring in a specially produced video: The management consultants found two actors who were dead ringers for the two and filmed them in a skit warning how unions can destroy tight-knit families.

On the eve of the balloting, P.C.C. president Marck Donegan held meetings with each unit of the plant. Recalls Reiner: "Donegan said the Governor had recently asked him how he was going to keep this plant in Oregon. And Donegan says, 'I said to the Governor, one way is a friendly labor environment. Quite frankly, I don't think we can do that if the Steelworkers are brought in.'" Reiner remembers that you could hear the devastating silence in the room. "That was that," she says. "Boom. The company had just announced the week before that it had bought some land up in Washington near an industrial park. You couldn't have walked out of that room without getting the very clear message. It was over."

When the vote finally took place in October 1996, the pro-union forces saw their initial numerical advantage of 2 to 1 stunningly reversed: 573 votes for the union, 1,127 against. A complaint has been filed with the N.L.R.B. protesting P.C.C.'s actions during the election, but today, says the organizing committee, the work force is whipped and apathetic. No one's talking union.

With defeats like the one at P.C.C. all too common, the new A.F.L.-C.I.O. leadership is frantic to effect some change. But officials say they aren't looking to the White House or Congress to push for any alterations in the laws that are responsible for outcomes such as the one in Portland. Although Bill Clinton was elected twice with significant union support, he has done little in five years, apart from a few enlightened appointments to regional labor boards, to improve labor's position. "The N.L.R.B. has been just about the same under Clinton as it was under Reagan/Bush," says a top A.F.L. leader. "Clinton's talked a better game, but there's no significant difference."

Labor reform is a virtual taboo on Capitol Hill, where a decrease in funding of the N.L.R.B. has worsened case backlogs. Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders has come up with what some A.F.L. leaders call their "fantasy wish-list labor reform bill," but it has zero chance of passing. "Bernie's bill is marvelous," says an adviser to A.F.L. president John Sweeney. "But to be frank, we don't even want it to come up for debate. The atmosphere toward us in Congress is so poisonous, we figure at this point we only have things to lose in any debate over labor law reform."

Hence, Bensinger and Sweeney's strategy of a national right-to-organize campaign that involves a beefed-up, coordinated, federation-wide push. The first strategy, whenever possible, is to persuade employers to agree to what is called a card-check campaign, in which the employer pledges to remain neutral during an organizing drive and to recognize the union, without an election, if a majority of workers sign authorization cards. The successful drive to unionize the 5,000-employee MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is the most recent case of such a strategy paying off.

When the hotel first opened five years ago, MGM resisted. But when a powerful labor, community, religious and political alliance was forged, MGM decided the bad P.R. wasn't worth it [see Mike Davis, "Armageddon at the Emerald City," July 11, 1994]. "That's what we mean by the right-to-organize campaign," says the A.F.L.'s Bob Lawson. "We link a card-check campaign with community mobilization and the recruitment of local and national political allies." (Not that popular support is a certainty; even supposedly "liberal" public agencies like Boston's Head Start have turned to anti-union consultants when faced with organizing efforts.)

Recently, Tennessee paperworkers completed a successful organizing drive after garnering the active support of the N.A.A.C.P. and local members of Congress. In December, city officials in New Haven, Connecticut, held hearings in conjunction with a card-check drive in local hotels that served as a useful way of exerting moral pressure on the employers to remain neutral. In Illinois, other sympathetic politicians held similar hearings as public health care employees attempted to organize. In Baltimore, an alliance of clergy and union organizers won important victories in barring local officials from using workfare recipients to replace other low-wage workers [see Cooper, "When Push Comes to Shove," June 2]. In Las Vegas, the Interfaith Council that aided MGM workers is now active in an unprecedented organizing drive of construction workers.

And perhaps the most tenacious of right-to-organize campaigns is still unfolding in Los Angeles. In a fight to unionize the New Otani Hotel, union leaders have built an impressive alliance of community leaders and members of the City Council and State Assembly. This coalition has not only kept the organizing drive alive but also fought the hotel's owner, the Kajima Corporation, on an expanding number of fronts. When, for example, it became clear that Kajima would profit from the proposed development of a large parcel of city land, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union lined up a majority on the City Council to block the measure. When the union learned Kajima had an interest in a firm redesigning the historic L.A. Coliseum for possible N.F.L. use, the union began a political lobbying campaign that has again caused the Council to slow down the process. And last fall, former school board member Victoria Castro personally tasted the union's wrath: After she endorsed a Kajima contract to build a new showcase L.A. school, the union played a major role in defeating her bid for a State Assembly seat.

There are no guarantees here. As labor militancy--and especially its effectiveness in skirting the N.L.R.B.--grows, we can expect an escalation in employer resistance. "Our hope is invested in educating the public, in hoping that once they know the facts about how hard it is to legally form a union, the American people will be outraged," says Bensinger. "Only then can we even think of creating the political climate for change in the labor laws."

Union Duh? 18.Dec.2001 19:03


If it were not for unions we wouldn't have days off, we would be working 20 hour days, our children would still be working in coal factories, we would have nothing that even resembles a "weekend". I guess these things really arn't taught in school. I didn't know about unions until I was 30 years old.

Education is key, because without it, you will have a less than enthusiastic audience.