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Keeping Labor Unions Out


As the late Senator Paul Wellstone liked to say, “We may be entitled to our own opinions, but we’re not entitled to our own facts.” Even with organized labor’s many problems (shrinking membership, internal dissension, gutless Democrats, growing irrelevancy, etc.), there’s no disputing the facts.

Fact: Across the board, union jobs pay more (10-15% more), offer better health and medical benefits, and provide workers greater on-the-job security and influence than non-union jobs. Fact: Union facilities are demonstrably safer than non-union facilities; statistically, the numbers aren’t even close. Fact: If unions didn’t represent a threat to management’s greed and unchecked authority, they wouldn’t be so vehemently opposed by businesses and business lobbies.

All of which raises the question: Given the post-Reagan assault on the earning power and dignity of blue-collar jobs, why aren’t more people signing union cards? Why haven’t the marginal and disenfranchised in the workforce wised up? Union membership used to hover at close to 35%; today it’s barely 12%. Worse, if only private industry were counted, it’s less than 7%. Better money, richer benefits, safer environment, more control . . . what’s not to like?

The short answer is that forming a union shop can be a complicated, even dangerous undertaking. The site’s employees not only require capable leadership, they need a plan of action and a cadre of dedicated “insiders” willing to sneak around and get 30% of the people to sign union cards (the minimum required by the National Labor Relations Board to sanction an election). And even after getting those signatures and filing that petition, there’s a daunting up-hill struggle awaiting.

As for the “sneaking” part, while it’s not required, it’s strongly recommended. Ask anyone who’s done it. When management gets a whiff of union cards being passed around, hackles go up, and they tend to punish the ringleaders, both as a practical matter and as a warning to future activists. They fire people. The standard charge is “unsatisfactory work performance.” When employees who are paid by the hour are caught passing out union literature (even on their coffee breaks), they’re charged with “stealing” company time, and are terminated.

Because it’s perfectly legal to circulate union literature on the job (so long as it doesn’t “interrupt, restrain or restrict” the operation), punishing an employee for doing so is a violation of federal labor law. Companies realize this; they know it’s a violation. It’s just that successfully keeping out the union by any means possible falls into that category of the ends justifying the means.

Of course, the fired “instigators” are more or less dead in the water. Not yet being union members and, therefore, not having access to free legal counsel, they have little recourse but to fight for reinstatement on their own. Even if they do manage to get their jobs back, months or years later, the union organizing drive is likely to be ancient history.

In truth, intimidation and outright threats are common practices. The United Mine Workers is a prime example. Although the UMW has filed numerous ULPs (unfair labor practice charges) against coal companies, accusing them of coercing prospective members, the NLRB has seldom moved beyond a preliminary investigation. Even though, in fairness to the NLRB, charges of coercion are difficult to prove, the Board simply has shown little interest in taking on the big boys. This has been particularly true during the Bush administration.

According to Phil Smith, Communications Director of the UMW, coercion and intimidation are the main reasons why, even with the alarming safety record of non-union mines (92% of all coal mining fatalities since Jan. 1, 2006, have occurred at non-union sites), less than 30% of America’s coal miners are unionized.

Coal miners are tough sons of bitches. Anyone who drills their way two miles into a mountain, and then sets up shop there, eight hours a day, has to be tough. But the threat of being black-balled by the industry or having the mine sub-contracted to an outfit that refuses to recognize the UMW (a common ploy, according to Smith) outweighs taking the chance of trying to join the union. Even tough guys fear losing their jobs.

When a company-any company-can’t dissuade its employees from signing union cards, and a petition manages to get filed with the NLRB, the management team shifts into its Def-Con 4 mode. Human Resources team goes on full-alert. It’s been said that companies react to a union membership drive roughly the same way a Swiss housekeeper reacts to finding a rat in the pantry.

Let’s be clear: If management didn’t object to employees forming a union, they wouldn’t force them to go the NLRB route in the first place. Instead, they’d agree to recognize them as soon as a majority of the employees (50% +1) signed cards. This method is known as the “card check” system. Once fairly rare, it’s become increasingly common as union and community pressure has forced businesses to submit to democracy. But even with the card-check method, intimidation and disinformation still occur. Meanwhile, the old guard remains unmoved. Their view: If you want a union shop, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.

It’s after the cards are in, and the Board is notified, that the real fight begins. During the run-up to an election (which can take months to schedule if company lawyers use creative stalling tactics), management launches a zealous, anti-union campaign whose aim is to inundate the employees, break down their initiative, through terror, intimidation, flattery and bribery.

Wal-Mart comes to mind. They have surveillance cameras in their parking lots to protect employees from being intercepted by union organizers as they make their way to and from their cars. Wal-Mart employees are required to report any person they meet who tries to engage them in a discussion of labor unions, and are warned not to accept anything these people may try to give them. (Isn’t this the same thing people tell their kids about child molesters?!)

Typically, Wal-Mart’s anti-union campaign will include everything from mandatory come-to-Jesus meetings where employees are “educated” about the evils of union membership (via movies, slide-shows and first-person horror stories) to the awarding of previously unannounced (surprise!) cash bonuses, as a token of management’s appreciation of their work. That these cash gifts occur on the eve of a union certification vote is dismissed as coincidence.

Organizers in the field report the following (in no particular order) as the five most frequently used propaganda weapons used by management:

* Employees are told that any monetary gains will be wiped out by union dues, which run as high as $300-$400 per month, and can be raised at any time. Fact: While monthly dues vary from union to union, $50 is about average. And dues, initiation fees and officers’ salaries can’t be raised without the membership’s secret-ballot approval. It’s the law.

* Employees are warned that strikes will keep them out of work for months at a time, ruining them financially. Fact: While strikes used to be fairly common, they are now rare, especially the long ones. The recent strikes called by the UAW-against GM and Chrysler-lasted two days, and six hours, respectively. The WGA, which has been out for barely over two weeks, will be re-meeting with the AMPTP on November 26, with a chance of settling.

* Playing Mr. Nice Guy, management assures the workers that “carpetbaggers and opportunists” aren’t necessary, that any safety or labor problems can be handled in-house. Fact: If that were truly the perception on the floor, the employees wouldn’t be seeking union assistance.

* Employees are reminded that union bosses are corrupt, and that members aren’t allowed a say in who gets elected. Fact: The Landrum-Griffin Act guarantees every member the right to vote. Even the Teamsters get to pick their leaders. Indeed, if American presidential elections were as openly democratic as union elections, we wouldn’t still be flogging something called the Electoral College.

* Management threatens to shut down the operation and move away. It’s an illegal tactic, but it’s used nonetheless. Fact: Companies pull up stakes for lots of reasons, but having a union shop is rarely the determining factor. In today’s climate, if a business can make more money by moving to Mississippi, India or Timbuktu, they’ll do it . . . union or no union.

After considering the many obstacles placed in the way of joining a union, perhaps the question should be restated. Instead of asking why there aren’t more people joining unions, the proper question should be: Given the hassles, threats and pitfalls awaiting them, how is any organizing drive ever successful?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at:




David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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