Corporations Widely Using Wal-Mart Tactics, New Unionbusting Report Finds

Art Levine

A definitive new look at the scope of employer ant-union campaigns by a noted Cornell University labor scholar finds that corporations have ramped up a wide-range of tactics designed to punish and intimidate workers for seeking to form a union. In nearly 60 percent of union election campaigns, employers threaten to close the plant, half of employers threaten workers in one-on-one "sweat sessions," and in a third of the elections, they retaliate by firing workers. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, has studied labor organizing for decades, and now concludes, "There's been a change in the nature of employer campaigns. They've become not just more intense, not just more aggressive, but they switched to a more punitive system: there's no more of this 'let's try the soft stuff and pretend to be nice.'" In response, the Chamber of Commerce attacked her as too pro-union to be believed, even though she reviewed a random sample of 1,000 National Labor Relations Board elections and all those elections' unfair labor practices documents and decisions, supplemented by in-depth interviews and surveys of organizers involved in over 500 campaigns. She's also been criticized by business interests for actually interviewing and surveying union organizers and workers for her research. But as Ross Eisenbrey, the vice-president of the Economic Policy Institute, which is releasing her report, observes, "Employer groups don't believe the victims [of unionbusting], the workers. Who are you going to believe, the employers?" He adds, "Despite a very difficult burden of proof,.unions are winning 45% of allegations." Today, with the backing of such organizations as American Rights at Work and the Economic Policy Institute, she and other experts are holding a briefing on the new report on Capitol Hill, with findings that are expected to boost the union movement's case for the Employee Free Choice Act. The harsh reality, based on confirmed NLRB decisions on unfair labor practice claims (which often are never filed because of regulatory roadblocks and weak enforcement), is that over 20,000 workers a year are fired or retaliated against for trying to form a union. As the Center for American Progress Action Fund reported recently in its primer on the Employee Free Choice Act: "Every 18 minutes a worker is illegally fired or discriminated against by their employer for their union activity--including discrimination even after a workplace has been organized--yet firms face few consequences when caught.." Now, in corporate America, almost every employer when faced with a union acts like Wal-Mart, including the home of the laid-back coffee break, Starbucks. As ZP Heller, the editorial director of Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, points out in releasing its new web video: The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly found Starbucks guilty of illegally terminating, harassing, intimidating, and discriminating against employees attempting to unionize. Late last year, a judge ruled Starbucks had committed over a dozen violations of the National Labor Relations Act at a few New York stores. Starbucks has settled five such labor disputes in the last few years in New York, Minnesota, and Michigan, spending millions on legal fees to avoid exposing their anti-worker ways. To make matters worse, Starbucks has led the charge on a so-called Employee Free Choice Act "compromise," joining Costco and Whole Foods to form the Committee for Level Playing Field. This Orwellian-sounding group has come up with a "third way" on Employee Free Choice, which would require 70 percent of workers to sign union authorization cards instead of the far more manageable 50 percent initially proposed by this legislation. But even companies that once had decent relations with workers and accepted unions are turning to bare-knuckle tactics. In the report, "No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing," it also looks at companies such as the Kentucky bakeyr plant Earthgrains. The report says: What distinguishes the current organizing climate from previous decades of employer opposition to unions? The primary difference is that the most intense and aggressive anti-union campaign strategies, the kind previously found only at employers like Wal-Mart, are no longer reserved for a select coterie of extreme anti-union employers. In examining NLRB documents we discovered dozens of employers similar to Earthgrains--companies with a history of maintaining a stable collective bargaining relationship with the majority of their workforce--making a dramatic shift in how they respond to union organizing efforts. When faced with an organizing campaign in its London, Kentucky plant in the summer of 2000, Earthgrains unleashed a relentless campaign of threats, interrogations, surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against the union. The charges against Earthgrains included videotaping workers as they spoke to union representatives; maintaining and showing to workers a list that supposedly revealed how other workers were going to vote; interrogating workers about whether they or their co-workers supported a union; threatening to fire workers for union activity; managers forcibly removing union literature from the hands of employees while they were on break; threatening to eliminate entire shifts, take away retirement plans, or gain-sharing benefits if the union won in the plant; telling the workers the union would go on strike as soon as the election was won; and promising improvements in benefits and a committee to resolve grievances if the union lost Ultimately, even a conservative NLRB threw out the election as tainted by illegal intimidation by Earthgrains, and a new election was held, which the bakery and confectionary union won. Bronfenbrenner notes why such rampant employer lawbreaking was made possible: "They can act with impunity and get away with it. In today's political climate, there's no penalty for it." Unionbusting thuggery and intimidation is the rule in corporate relations with workers seeking to form unions. And now Big Business interests want to bring the same fear-mongering they've used so successfully in the workplace to intimidate moderates in the United States, some of whom who have been cowed by an aggressive PR and lobbying blitz. Like workers fearful for their jobs, they apparently fear they could lose their seats if business uses its clout to defeat them at the polls. But grass-roots organizing by unions is working to counter such tactics. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reports: As the Employee Free Choice Act gets closer to reality, the anti-worker disinformation campaign grows louder with corporate front groups throwing everything they have against workers. Across the country, union members and their allies are pushing back and letting the corporate titans know they won't back down when it comes to the freedom to form unions. In Wisconsin, union members converged in Milwaukee to protest an appearance by Karl Rove, the former Bush administration political enforcer who is traveling the country telling corporate executives to fight the Employee Free Choice Act. And in Florida, union members gathered in Jacksonville outside a meeting of an anti-union corporate group, the "Center for a Union-Free Workplace Environment," to protest their opposition to workers' freedom to bargain for a better life. The Bronfenbrenner report concludes by underlining what's really at stake in this fight: "Unless serious labor law reform with real penalties is enacted, only a fraction of the workers who seek representation under the National Labor Relations Act will be successful. If recent trends continue, then there will no longer be a functioning legal mechanism to effectively protect the right of private-sector workers to organize and collectively bargain."

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
Brandon Johnson
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