Big money vs. workers rights

The phenomenal rise of the multi-million-dollar union-busting industry in the U.S. has paralleled the decline in the manufacturing base, the rise of the right wing and the decline in union membership of the past 30-some years.

According to the workers rights advocacy group American Rights at Work, union-busters provide legal and consulting services, training, workshops and materials for supervisors and managers, and a variety of anti-union propaganda for distribution to employees attempting to organize. Additionally, consultants advise management on prolonging the bargaining process ad infinitum and occasionally advise employers attempting to break an established union.

Union-busting is big business

Over three-quarters of employers facing a unionization campaign hire these firms, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University. And it’s one of the prime reasons the labor movement is pushing the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, to strengthen workers’ ability to organize against the anti-union onslaught.

Anti-union campaigns usually involve several consultants and can last from weeks to years, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to millions in price according to John Logan of the London School of Economics. By some estimates, employers spend between $2,000 and $4,000 per employee on each campaign.

Highly paid and highly effective, almost all union-busting firms claim a success rate of over 90 percent.

Even at the Red Cross

Despite this, the players in this industry are remarkably unimaginative, employing largely the same tactics used by consultants since they first appeared in the post-World War II era.

Currently engaged in an acrimonious organizing campaign with the American Red Cross in Tucson, Ariz., Teamsters organizer Kathy Campbell states that one union activist was called in to supervisors’ offices a total of five times for a minimum of one hour at a time in the final week before one NLRB election.

Another activist was rumored to be a bartender working at the Red Cross only as a “union plant” who would vote “yes,” then leave the company. At least, that’s the story supervisors told to the activist’s coworkers, and to public supporters of the union, when they called supporters at home the night before the local newspaper ran a story detailing the activist’s experience of supervisor intimidation.

How they operate

According to Bronfenbrenner’s research, half of the companies experiencing a union drive threaten to close their plants and one-quarter fire at least one union supporter.

Additional strategies include manipulating the bargaining unit, “love offerings” such as unexpected raises and promotions, distributing voluminous amounts of anti-union publications, and delaying the election to gain more time to counter-organize.

The union-busting industry also includes, to a lesser extent, industrial psychologists, security firms and publication houses specializing in anti-union materials. While the industry still maintains its stronghold in the U.S., consultants are increasingly seeking to export their services, and are having some success in Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Union-busting firms rarely speak directly to employees, preferring to interact primarily with supervisors and managers. Frontline supervisors are trained, coached and sometimes cajoled into doing the dirty work of the union-busters and upper management, and supervisors who are not willing will be fired or re-assigned.

Who’s the outsider?

Typical of union avoidance consultants, Labor Relations Services, Inc., states on its website that “management and employees are best served by working directly together without the intervention of an unwanted, potentially adversarial, outside party, such as a union.”

Aside from the union avoidance consultants’ obvious third-party status, the deeper truth here is one that is frequently missed. The “union” in labor union refers not only to a formal labor organization, but most especially to the “union” of workers on the shop floor.

A labor union at its essence is no outside party — it is an extension of the camaraderie and solidarity of rank-and-file workers recognizing their common interests as members of the working class.