Book review

Confessions of a Union Buster, by Martin Jay Levitt, Crown Publishers Inc., 302 pp., hardcover, $25.

Martin Jay Levitt joined the union-busting business in 1969. He was 25 years old, divorced, living with his parents, and in need of fast cash. The seduction was too much. Besides, like his first union-busting boss told him, “We do the Lord’s work.”

Even though Levitt wasn’t sure what was meant by the “Lord’s work,” he learned quickly and found out early on that the Lord’s servants were paid handsomely. After all, union busters weren’t “anti-union.” They were “pro-company and pro-employee.” So at age 25 Levitt began making $500 dollars a day and billed the client company for “every single expenditure … for the duration” of a union-busting campaign.

Levitt’s first union-busting campaigns introduced him to the most “common strateg[ies] among management lawyers.” First, Levitt tells us, “Challenge everything … then take every challenge to a full hearing … then prolong each hearing” as long as possible, then “appeal every unfavorable decision.”

According to Levitt there was method to the madness. “If you [can] make the union fight drag on long enough, workers…lose faith, lose interest, lose hope.” Taking away people’s hopes, their aspirations for a better future – that was Levitt’s job.

While Levitt understood the strategies of union busting, his understanding of why union busting is such a lucrative profession jelled later on. As Levitt chatted one night with a dinner guest, John Rogers, the “top industrial relations man at Cleveland Trust Bank,” he found out what the union-busting business was all about. “Control,” Rogers told him.

“After that night,” Levitt writes, “I began to see that the business was all about control. I realized that control was both the objective and the method in union busting.” According to Levitt, corporations want to learn the “secrets of staying in control … during an organizing drive.”

Confessions really hits home when Levitt gives the details of how a union-busting campaign is waged. In the late seventies, Levitt worked for a firm called Modern Management Methods (Three M). Three M was hired to consult management at Harper Grace hospital, where (what has since become) the Service Employees International Union 1199 was in the middle of a organizing drive.

According to Robert Muehlenkamp, an 1199 organizer, “Union busters wield great power through their program of terror and manipulation – people don’t, can’t possible know what’s going on and who’s telling the truth. You have to appreciate that most of the people [at a work site] are just ordinary people. They have no experience … with violence, with being lied to, with manipulation, with being harassed in open, gross, insulting ways. The first time this happens to regular people, they’re terrified.” And terror is the goal. The union buster hopes to control employees by employing terror.

But it isn’t just about breaking an organizing drive at one single location. Levitt quotes Muehlenkamp again to emphasize the point: “If they [hospital workers] watched all the workers at the only other hospital … try to organize and saw what happened to them, only to lose, they weren’t going to attempt the same.”

One of the most striking things about Confessions is its brutal honesty, its brutal portrayal of the union buster and his awareness of the conditions of the would-be union members he was paid to manipulate, confuse and eventually defeat.

Throughout Confessions we are also introduced to Levitt’s wife and children. We are told of Levitt’s on-again, off-again, romances and affairs, the thirst for more and more material wealth – luxury cars and huge houses – and the unquenchable drinking. Levitt repeatedly tells us that drinking became the only way he could accept the reality of what he did.

In the mid-eighties he decided to seek alcoholic treatment and change his profession. He called the AFL-CIO and told the leadership of his decision. While skeptical at first, the AFL-CIO realized that insider knowledge of the union-busting business was valuable and that Martin Jay Levitt wanted to try to make amends.

At the beginning of Confessions, Levitt tells of a speech he gave at the 1988 Western Conference of the Brotherhood of Carpenters. At the end of the speech many in the audience had tears in their eyes, Levitt writes. He then adds, “It was not joy, but an overwhelming feeling of relief that filled the men who heard me that day: relief to know that the war they had suspected was being waged on them had been a real one all along and not just a creation of a unions paranoid imagination, as so many corporate bosses had told them.”

The war Levitt speaks of has intensified since Bush took office. Confessions should be read widely.

– Tony Pecinovsky (