Established in 1982, with headquarters in tony Malibu, California, The Burke Group (after president and CEO David Burke) advertises itself as the world’s largest management consulting firm specializing in “union avoidance and preventative industrial labor relations.” Which is more or less a euphemism for “union busting.”
The Burke Group (TBG, for short) earns its keep by defeating union organizing efforts. Torpedoing membership drives is their self-declared “specialty.” When hired by a company to dissuade employees from joining a labor union, TBG representatives swing into action, utilizing every manner of high-powered, negative propaganda to make sure the referendum fails.
TBG’s anti-union presentations (and, typically, there are several of them, spread over weeks) are conducted on company turf, where employee attendance is mandatory. Those who refuse to attend the presentations can be terminated.
Basically, what TBG does at these captive audience meetings is bombard the well-intentioned but impressionable employees with smears, innuendo, flattery, and scare tactics, using a standard, two-pronged assault: one-part economic and one-part psychological.
The economic part consists of pretending that, contrary to what they’ve heard, workers don’t actually “gain” materially by joining a union. Any wage or benefit increase will, in fact, be eaten up by ever-increasing monthly dues that are used to pay the inflated salaries of greedy union bosses, and by debilitating strikes, where employees are thrown out of work for months at a time, with no say in the matter. That’s their pitch.
Of course, these assertions are not only counter-factual and purposely misleading, they’re downright insulting to anyone who’s been paying attention. Union wages alone (not even counting benefits) are, on average, 15% higher than non-union wages. And, because dues run about $50-$60 per month, and amount to but a tiny fraction of that differential, the suggestion that higher wages will be off-set by monthly dues is absurd.
As for strikes, their impact is also wildly exaggerated. In truth, given the economic climate and status of organized labor, how many actual strikes are there anymore? The reason strikes make the evening news and front page of the newspaper is because they occur so infrequently; and the ones that last for “months” are rarer still.
Moreover, a union cannot raise the monthly dues without a majority of the membership voting to raise them. And federal labor law stipulates that voting on dues increases (as well as officers salaries) must be conducted by secret ballot. It couldn’t be any clearer. Yet, these professional union-busters try to make it sound like joining a union means abandoning democracy and common sense, and placing oneself at the mercy of money-hungry despots.
The same goes for strikes. Because a strike is such a momentous undertaking, a union negotiating team cannot call one unless the membership has already given them authorization to do so. That stipulation is spelled out in the by-laws. Again, it couldn’t be any clearer.
In fact, some unions, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), require even more than a simple majority; they require a 75% mandate for strike authorization. In short, no matter what these union-busters claim, a union doesn’t hit the bricks unless the members themselves choose to do so. Yet, companies like TBG continue to sell the idea that union members have no say in what happens to them.
The psychological part of the presentation is equally misleading. TBG reps try to convince employees that once they join a union they no longer have unrestricted or unimpeded access to management. They are told that, by virtue of signing up, they automatically define themselves as management’s “enemy,” and, accordingly, can expect the company to treat them with hostility and contempt.
The propaganda is unremitting. Workers are warned that, if they ignore the sound advice being offered them and choose, instead, to join a union, they will go from being free, self-sufficient and valued employees to mere foot soldiers in organized labor’s vast army of minions. They paint an unbelievably demoralizing picture.
It’s also not uncommon for professional union-busters to use visual aids. Typically, they’ll show footage of downtrodden workers manning picket lines, union goons battling the police, and scowling, overweight union bosses doing the perp walk as they’re led away by federal agents for violating racketeering statutes or stealing money from the union’s treasury. Anything to make organized labor look bad.
As heavy-handed and coarse as these methods are, TBG has been surprisingly successful using them. Among its “victorious” customers are General Electric, Honeywell, Coca-Cola, the Eaton Corporation, Virgin Air, T-Mobile, K-Mart, and the Chinese Daily News. With TBG’s help, all of these businesses were successful in keeping their employees from joining unions.
Because so many of the workers being targeted by organized labor these days are Latinos, many of whom are recent immigrants working at jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, TBG has convinced employers that they need qualified Spanish-speakers to do their dirty work.. And TBG speaks fluent Spanish. (Their consultants also speak Tagalog, French, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and several dialects of Chinese.)
Indeed, TBG takes great pride in customizing its service. When the Chinese Daily News (CDN) came to TBG for assistance in crushing its employees’ organizing drive, the firm chose as its representative one Larry Wong, an ethnic Chinese. They rarely miss a trick. Predictably, TBG’s services don’t come cheaply. According to reports, CDN alone has paid TBG more than $800,000 in consulting fees.
So next time people are tempted to criticize organized labor for not recruiting more new members, they should take a moment to consider the opposition. When it comes to keeping the unions out, American businesses are willing to pay cash. TBG is just one of many companies willing to accept it.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org