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Subverting Union Democracy

Subverting union solidarity is a tactic that’s been used in virtually every anti-union campaign in history.  And, despite being delivered in more subtle, insidious packages, it continues to be used today—from Massey Energy’s intimidation of coal miners in West Virginia, to Rio Tinto’s move against ILWU members in Boron, California, to the AMPTP’s recent attempt to exploit the rift between SAG members.

Management fears union solidarity.  They fear it because it’s mysterious, insular, and slightly irrational—drawing its strength from the heart and the gut—and because management has no way of limiting its scope or predicting its effects.  They fear it because they realize that once it’s set loose, union solidarity, like fissile plutonium, has the potential to create a massive chain reaction.

Accordingly, they will do anything in their power to destroy it.

Take what’s going on at the borax mine in Boron, California, for example.  Besides attempting to overhaul the ILWU’s contract from top to bottom (ravaging everything from wages to seniority to the grievance procedure), the Rio Tinto corporation is trying to turn one union member against another by appealing to notions of inequality and self-worth.

I’ve witnessed this tactic a dozen times with my own eyes.  Management will approach an athletic young man with three or four years seniority, and flatter him into believing his own union is holding him back—preventing him from realizing his full potential and depriving his family of additional income—by insisting that another, less competent employee (usually an older woman), work the higher paying job, simply because she has more seniority.

Rio Tinto is doing precisely that at Boron.  To tempt the union into accepting an inferior contract, management is telling people that wages will not be cut across-the-board, that the wages of certain employees will, in fact, be raised….will be raised above even what the union wants them to be.  Of course, management’s goal isn’t to increase costs by paying employees more than they ask for; that notion is absurd on its face.  Its goal is to break the union.

Another assault on union solidarity is the two-tier wage structure.  Simply put, a two-tier scheme requires new employees to earn less money than older, more senior people.  No matter how long they work there or what job they do, they’re locked into a lower hourly rate.  So you have two people working side-by-side, doing the identical job and paying identical monthly union dues, but earning different wages….and doing it forever.

Ironically, the two-tier configuration is the antithesis of the “flattery” approach.  Under a two-tier, management is telling the same young, athletic new-hire that not only will he not supplant that older woman, he won’t even earn the same wage as she, once he promotes to her position.  The two-tier is a guaranteed solidarity buster.

Another assault is the use of “special assignments.”  These are non-supervisory clerical jobs typically done by salaried employees, but offered to hourly union members.  The company takes you off your machine or forklift, places you in an air-conditioned office with a desk and a swivel chair, then stands back and watches as you morph into a company clone.  Not only do these “gravy jobs” create resentment, they blur the line between labor and management….exactly what the company wants.

Another is the so-called “non-disparagement” clause.  This has to be one of the most bizarre, offensive and anti-libertarian ideas to emerge since the notorious loyalty oaths of the 1950s.  Basically, a non-disparagement clause is a “gag rule” that requires union members not to criticize management.  Obviously, criticism of management could induce unrest, which, in turn, could encourage union solidarity.

While these clauses aren’t common, they aren’t rare, either.  Some years ago, Hollywood producers pushed for a non-disparagement clause in a SAG contract, and, currently, PASNAP (Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals) members, who are on strike against Temple University, are refusing to sign a contract that includes such a clause.

Just when we thought our corporations couldn’t get any greedier or more arrogant, they pull this one out of their hat.  Compromising the NLRB, using permanent substitute workers to break strikes, lobbying Congress for anti-union loopholes, and forcing workers to accept concessionary contracts wasn’t enough for them.

Believing they have organized labor on the ropes, corporate America is now taking some outrageous liberties—insisting on contractual language that forbids union members to criticize management.  That whirring sound you hear in the background is Harry Bridges spinning in his grave.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net