David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The New Face of Unionbusting
by David Bacon

Unionbusting Gets Sophisticated

Last December the Labor Department's top official in California made the most expensive and dangerous call of his life. Richard Sawyer thought he was just enforcing wage and hour laws, and protecting workers' rights. That is, after all, the Labor Department's mandate.

Instead, the price for his call was his job. He became a centerpoint in a swirling controversy in which employers and Republican politicians are seeking to ban one of the labor movement's most effective campaign strategies - Justice for Janitors. Sawyer's predicament highlights the evolving nature of unionbusting. What has traditionally been a business dominated by consultants, guards and lawfirms, conducting dirty campaigns to beat unions in strikes and NLRB elections, has taken on a much wider scope.

Modern unionbusting now includes sophisticated efforts to forestall organizing drives through company-dominated organizations in the workplace. It even incorporates the manipulation of workplace demographics, in an attempt to achieve a "union-proof" workforce.

Sawyer's crime was a phone conversation made a year ago to the facilities manager at the Palo Alto headquarters of Hewlett-Packard, one of the largest and most politically-connected firms in the electronics industry. John Young, H-P chief executive officer, led a parade of high-tech corporate execs who endorsed Clinton in 1992, and supported him again in 1996. Company founder David Packard was a deputy secretary of defense, with enormous influence in Washington.

Sawyer's call sought to address concerns that H-P's janitorial contractor in Sacramento, Somers Building Maintenance, had been cited in the early 1990s for not paying overtime to its workers, and was still being investigated. In addition, Somers was adopting a risky strategy to fight the unionization of its workers, which led eventually to serious legal charges.

Somers was a target of the country's most high-visibility union organizing campaign, Justice for Janitors. Having previously organized most janitors in Silicon Valley and neighboring Alameda County, Service Employees Local 1877 made the company the centerpiece of an effort to expand to Sacramento, California's state capitol. Somers holds large cleaning contracts there with state government and major corporations, including H-P.

In mid-1995, after winning workers' support, Local 1877 asked Somers to agree to recognize the union based on a check of authorization cards, which workers sign to indicate their desire to be represented by a union. The company refused. Within weeks an ex-supervisor and the wife of another supervisor began going through the buildings at night, collecting signatures on cards belonging to Couriers and Service Employees Local 1, a hitherto little-known union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO.

While company spokesperson Randall Shaber later claimed that "our employees don't want a union at all," Somers quickly recognized Local 1. After meeting for just five hours, the company signed a contract with no wage increases.

Somers employees supporting Local 1877 began to be threatened on the job by other workers, who announced they had been appointed Local 1 representatives. In September of 1995, janitor Isidro Camarillo was attacked at night in one of the buildings, and on October 27 Luis Camarillo was pulled into a closet in an H-P building, and beaten by Crisanto Martinez, a Local 1 steward.

Sawyer's phone conversation with Hewlett-Packard followed the beatings and numerous allegations of other illegal conduct. His concern proved to be well-founded, when the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint a month later, in January, 1996. The complaint essentially called Local 1 a company union, and charged Somers with illegally intimidating, coercing, spying on and disciplining workers who supported Local 1877. In August, Somers agreed to settle the charge by kicking out Local 1.

While Somers' strategy in the end was unsuccessful, it marked a new and sophisticated development in the effort by employers to defeat what has been one of the most successful organizing strategies used by unions today. Justice for Janitors' tactics were heralded as keys to rebuilding union strength nationally by former SEIU President John Sweeney, during his successful effort to win election in 1995 as the new president of the AFL-CIO.

The strength of Justice for Janitors campaigns comes from the many-sided pressure they mobilize on building owners. Organizers build community coalitions to mount boycotts and economic campaigns. Union researchers document violations of worker protection laws, and file barrages of court actions. Union members and supporters conduct rallies, demonstrations, and sit-ins, often using civil disobedience to back up organizing efforts.

But Somers and Hewlett-Packard in Sacramento used a new strategy to fight the janitors, one which many union observers credited to the west coast's premier anti-union law firm, Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy. Littler is ranked number two on a national list of unionbusters maintained by the AFL-CIO. Ranking is determined by the number of NLRB cases where the firm has represented employers; Littler scores at 131.

While SEIU Local 1877 mounted pressure from outside the workplace, the company used Local 1 to create a climate of fear and intimidation inside, among the workers themselves. Those who supported the company union were given better treatment, and some even chosen as stewards. Somers created a small core of employees who identified strongly with the company, while supporters of Local 1877 had to fight just to keep their jobs.

While Somers fought janitors inside the Sacramento buildings, it also went to Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), who announced hearings of the House government oversight committee to examine misconduct in the Department of Labor. Sawyer was made the goat, and Labor Secretary Robert Reich fired him.

But Hoekstra and the House Republicans have a longer-term agenda - barring entirely corporate campaign tactics like Justice for Janitors. The Somers campaign was ammunition in that war, and Sawyer a casualty. Marlene Somsak, a public relations spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, was open about company opposition to corporate campaigns, and referred to them as "the use of neutral parties as battlegrounds."

Employers and their political allies want to force union organizing drives back into the legal process of NLRB elections, while the whole Justice for Janitors strategy is an effort to avoid them. That says a lot about how distorted the legal system has become. Instead of protecting workers, U.S. labor law is now a very productive and profitable terrain for unionbusters.

Employers use different strategies in dealing with workers who are trying to organize unions, and with existing unions which they want to break, or "bust." For unorganized workers, companies rely on the apparatus of the National Labor Relations Act. They use law firms like Littler, which have specialized in the legal manipulation of that system. They often bring in expert consultants to design the actual fight against union supporters inside the workplace.

When companies decide to try to bust a union, they often use the same set of specialized law firms. But instead of defeating workers in elections, their legal objective is to avoid NLRB interference while the employer forces a strike, and replaces its union workforce. Companies often contract temporary employment agencies to recruit scabs, and security firms to protect them, firms which threaten, and even attack, strikers.

These are the classic forms of unionbusting which have been used on thousands of occasions against workers and unions over the past thirty years. They have roots in the industrial wars of the turn of the century, and in the structure of labor law itself. But the last two decades have also seen the growth of new forms of unionbusting, which rely on preventing workers from organizing in the first place, through new forms of company unionism, and through efforts to hire a workforce unable or unwilling to organize.

"Take the Head Off Before It Has a Chance to Grow"

Joe Uehlein, past secretary of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department, and now director of its department of strategic campaigns points out that classic unionbusting has always been reactive. Employers respond both to the prospect that workers might organize a union, and to the specific tactics unions use. "We set the battlefield; they have to react to it," he asserts. "That's why they want to make us deal with the NLRB. They control that process, and they know how to win using it."

Statistics compiled on NLRB elections document that unions only win about half of them, and more in smaller companies than larger ones. Even worse, unions only win contracts with half of the companies where workers vote for union representation.

AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger explains that "NLRB elections force unions into a propaganda war, in which they have to convince workers that life can be better in the future if they're organized." Using a barrage of legal tactics, anti-union law firms try to carve out a bargaining unit of workers with a minimum of union support. They delay elections as long as possible, to give management a chance to reverse union support through intense, one-on-one conversations with supervisors. In captive audience meetings, which workers are forced to attend, management makes threats and promises and asks for "a second chance." Unionbusters show videos, depicting violent strikes, while carefully-coached management representatives tell workers they'll have to strike if the union wins.

"In the meantime, the union is excluded from the workplace entirely, and has no way of stopping illegal activity before the voting takes place," Bensinger says.

Unions do win some representation elections. Strong committees of workers, which fearlessly show their union support, confront management and demand immediate improvements in conditions, can short-circuit much of the propaganda war. Responding to the effort by management to paint the union as an outside force, their battlecry is usually "we are the union!"

Nevertheless, unionbusting consultants have thrived as the legal process has become more and more skewed. When Local 2850 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union began its organizing drive at the Lafayette Park Hotel, in an upper-class suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area, hotel managers brought in one of the most well-known, the American Consulting Group (number 31 on the AFL-CIO list).

In short order, the hotel had fired two of the most active union supporters. Firings for union activity are a common occurrence in union drives - they create the necessary bedrock of any anti-union campaign: fear. Nationally, the AFL-CIO estimates that one worker out of every ten participating in a union organizing campaign loses their job. "Preemption is the unionbusters' philosophy," explains Local 2850 President Jim Dupont. "Their approach is 'take the head off before it has a chance to grow.'"

Union research documented a long history of unionbusting by ACG, and its predecessor, the West Coast Industrial Relations Association. WCIRA's legal violations were so extensive that fifteen years ago, the NLRB even obtained a federal court order forbidding further unfair labor practices. There's no record, however, that the order was ever enforced.

Socorro Zapien was one of the workers fired at the Lafayette Park. She was accused of taking a mint from a housekeeping cart, and going early to her coffee break. She had no previous disciplinary record, and in any case, workers often ate food from the carts without management objection. Her union support was well-known, especially, according to Dupont, because the hotel sent a spy into union meetings.

Nevertheless, the NLRB refused to demand that the hotel rehire her. The board follows a precedent called the Riteline decision, which says that if there is any reason unrelated to union activity for a firing, no matter how unlikely, termination is legal. Even if the punishment doesn't fit the crime, or it is being applied discriminatorily, the board will still take no action. Since there are no perfect workers, finding a minor infraction is not difficult for a company bent on firing a union activist.

Even if, despite this obstacle, the board finally issues an order requiring the reinstatement of a fired worker, the legal process is so lengthy that many months, and usually years, have passed. In the meantime, workers see clearly the consequences of supporting the union, and with reason, fear for their jobs.

At the Lafayette Park, the firings were combined with raises and increases in benefits. Supervisors offered help in fixing legal documents for its mostly-immigrant workforce.

"After all that, there was no way we could have a fair election there. We hadn't even talked to a number of the workers yet," Dupont says.

HERE Local 2850 then took an increasingly common step among unions who find the law fails to protect labor rights. It decided to use direct pressure on the hotel to give workers breathing space inside, and make it pay a high price for unionbusting. Neither of these objectives could be achieved, organizers concluded, using the NLRB process, since there are essentially no penalties on employers who break the law.

In the style of Justice for Janitors, the union began picketing the hotel, especially on its busiest weekend nights. It mounted a boycott, convincing many organizations to cancel conferences using hotel facilities, and making its upscale resort-like atmosphere much less attractive for weddings and parties. Marches of union members, immigrant rights activists, and religious supporters became a common sight in downtown Lafayette, so much so that the city fathers tried to pass an ordinance (later found unconstitutional) to bar them. The union spread its activity to two other northern California hotels owned by the same company. This is the kind of campaign that Rep. Hoekstra and Congressional Republicans would like to stop.

To counter Local 2850, the union says that ACG trained supervisors to identify and isolate pro-union workers, while pressuring the undecided. A committee of anti-union employees suddenly appeared, which the union suspects was organized by the consultants. Both of these are standard unionbuster tactics during NLRB election campaigns, especially the employee "vote no committee." Pro-management workers can legally lie about the union and make threats about job loss and plant closure, acts which are illegal if done by company management.

But ACG had to go beyond a standard unionbusting campaign at the Lafayette Park. Led by its founder Fred Long, Jr., the consultant firm did extensive public relations work to counter the boycott. It repeatedly tried to get injunctions against the union's free-speech, direct action tactics, and worked with city councilmembers to restrict them. ACG also brought in another consultant, Lupe Cruz, to deal with the mostly-Latina, immigrant workforce.

The Lafayette Park campaign is still going on. Unions adopting this approach have to have a long-term commitment. But it often succeeds where the board process fails. Local 2850's sister local in San Francisco, Local 2, mounted a similar four-year fight at the Parc 55 Hotel. In the end, management finally gave in and signed a contract.

The Blood and Guts Strikebreakers

The classic unionbusting strategy for breaking already-organized unions received its blessing from the Reagan administration in its handling of the PATCO strike in 1981. Then the strategy was baptized in fire in 1984 in the bitter copper miners strike in Arizona, at Phelps-Dodge. Joe Uehlein says the mine strike was a watershed for unionbusting. "It was really the start of the modern process of permanent replacement of strikers by scabs," he says. "It was a major turning point, and we still haven't, as a movement, understood its impact, much less recovered from it."

Since Phelps-Dodge, the list of companies where that strategy has been used is a roll-call of the major class battles of the 1980s and90s - Continental Airlines, Eastern Airlines, International Paper, Caterpillar, Hormel, Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods, Diamond Walnut, Pittston, Wheeling-Pittsburg, USX, and many others. Today that war is being fought in the streets of Detroit, in front of the offices of the Detroit News and Free Press, and at their joint printing plant in suburban Sterling Heights.

Not all of these battles have been won by employers, but the pattern of attack is basically the same.

In 1995, management of both Detroit newspapers put demands on the table which they knew would be unacceptable to unions - replacing cost-of-living raises with merit increases, and eliminating union jobs while creating non-union positions doing the same work. The existence of a plan to force a strike was amply demonstrated by meetings between management and the Sterling Heights police department. The Detroit Newspaper Agency, a joint operation of both newspapers to share production and distribution facilities, promised four months before the strike started to compensate the department for overtime costs it would incur in shepherding scabs into the plant.

By the time the strike was a year old, the agency had paid Sterling Heights $2.1 million for police overtime.

Representing the News, owned by Gannett Publications, and the Free Press, owned by Knight Ridder, is the law firm of King and Ballow (number 29 on the AFL-CIO list). Detroit is only the latest in a series of similar newspaper wars, which have hit Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and San Francisco, among other cities. King and Ballow has represented management in most of them.

Once unions walked out on strike, the Detroit papers were ready to replace the strikers immediately, and had contracted with Alternative Work Force to bring in 580 scabs. AWF is one of a number of companies which specialize in recruiting scabs for strikes. Another such company, BE&K, one of the largest, maintains a databank with the names of hundred of workers who travel the country from strike to strike. It characteristically appears as construction company working on projects which start just as contract negotiations break down. But its workforce then takes on strikebreaking functions. BE&K brought replacements into the strike at the mills of International Paper in the late 1980s, and even set up housing and eating facilities for them inside the struck plant in Maine.

To guard Detroit's scabs, the newspapers at first hired another company which has made lots of money in the newspaper wars - Huffmaster Security. For supplying 480 guards and 580 scabs for the first four months of the strike, Huffmaster and AWK were paid $2.3 million. The guard company is suing the papers for $1.6 million more.

Huffmaster was replaced by a larger, even more notorious, security firm, Vance International, whose guards show up dressed in black uniforms and combat boots. According to company founder Chuck Vance, the company's success lies in its use of videocameras. During the strike at the Pittston Coal Co., for instance, Vance collected thousands of hours of videotapes. Courts hostile to miners in the coalfields used the tapes to justify $64 million in fines against the United Mine Workers.

Standard company legal strategy during strikes rests on convincing friendly judges to issue injunctions which virtually eliminate picketing, so that scabs pass freely in and out. While there is basically no punishment for companies if scabs threaten or injure strikers, if a striker threatens a scab in any way, or even insults them, the NLRB has held that such activity is misconduct - grounds for firing. After a strike is over, videotapes become evidence used to selectively ensure that active union members are not rehired.

When the United Auto Workers struck Caterpillar in Peoria, Vance's Asset Protection Team pushed and shoved strikers and family members, in order to provoke confrontations it could video as evidence. Guards followed strikers to their homes. Cat striker Ron Heller monitored a police radio conversation mentioning a list of "troublemakers." In subsequent legal action he uncovered records which indicate Vance supplied a list of active union members to local police.

In Detroit, 20 Vance guards beat striker Vito Sciuto with a stick, breaking his skull. In comments to a reporter afterwards, a Vance employee said the guards wanted "to hurt people."

This reputation makes money for Vance. When Cleveland teachers considered going on strike in the fall of 1996, the school district hired the company. "When uniformed out-of-state security forces invaded a Cleveland high school ... complete with shields, bulletproof vests, cots, and in some cases sidearms, we now realize that the education of Cleveland children [was] the last thought on the minds of the state officials running strike preparations," commented Ohio State Representative Vermel M. Whalen.

Vance's strikebreaking activity earned the company a gross income of $90 million in 1995, in a private security industry which grossed a total of $25 billion.

The results, so far, have pleased the management of the Detroit papers. Frank Vega, CEO of Detroit Newspapers, said "we would have waited three or four more contracts to get to where this strike has gotten us."

The Modern Company Union

Not far from the Lafayette Park, another, larger, hotel chain is implementing a much more sophisticated strategy to block union organization before it ever starts. The Hyatt Hotel in Sacramento has put into place a peer review system, which has all the appearance of a union grievance procedure.

A worker with a problem he or she can't resolve with their supervisor can go to a peer review committee. Two supervisors sit on it, and the worker with a grievance can choose three fellow employees as well, from a list of those who have gone through conflict resolution training.

The important part of this process, according to HERE 2850's Dupont, is that "it creates the semblance of justice." In other words, it seems like workers don't need a union to get their problems resolved.

The Hyatt procedure has its roots in similar peer review committees, set up by Caras and Associates, of Columbia, Maryland, for General Electric. After defeating a union drive at its Mattoon, Illinois, plant in 1991, Caras designed the committee to ensure that workers wouldn't undertake a second effort. The Caras/GE committee, like that at the Hyatt, also consisted of two managers, with three workers drawn at random. GE created a similar committee after it beat a union in another election in 1989 in Frankfurt, Kentucky.

These committees are not only an anti-union antidote. GE organization specialist Jack Hoffman noted that they also insulated the company from discrimination complaints. "Once [government] investigators see the peer review approach," Hoffman said, "they usually don't even go through the paperwork."

Peer review committees are only a small part of a much larger picture. Modern personnel practices in large corporations try to inoculate workers against the idea of organizing or taking sides against management. This sophisticated unionbusting strategy is a modern-day version of company unionism.

Classical company unions went into decline as a result of the successful industrial organizing drives of the CIO during the 1930s. But a new laboratory began modernizing old models after World War Two, in Silicon Valley.

High-tech industry was born with the cold war, in a period when the militancy and organizing fervor of the labor movement had fallen to its lowest point in decades. From the beginning, high tech workers faced an industry-wide anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who helped invent the transis-tor, and later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that "remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we'd all go out of business. This is a very high priority for management here."

The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-man-agement techniques for maintaining a "union-free environment." These techniques focused on the team method for organizing workers on the plant floor. After refinement in Silicon Valley, many of the tactics were used against unions in other industries, from auto-manufacturing to steel-making.

In January of 1994, the Commission on the Future of Labor Management Relations, known as the Dunlop Commission, held hearings in Silicon Valley. Under the kleig lights in San Jose's cavernous convention center, witnesses gave the public a good first-hand look at high-tech labor/management cooperation.

Pat Hill-Hubbard, senior vice-president of the American Electronics Association, told the commission that "employees have become de-cision-makers, and management has practically disappeared." Doug Henton, representing Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, an industry/government policy group, was even more blunt. "Unions as they have existed in the past are no longer relevant," he said. "Labor law of 40 years ago is not appropriate to 20th cen-tury economics."

During the hearing, Phuli Siddiqi, an Intel worker, gave part of a company presentation de-scribing "Intel values." She listed quality, discipline, risk-taking, customer ori-entation, and holding the opinion that "Intel is a great place to work." She described "worker ownership of projects and products," and the company's program for em-ployee recognition, called "pat on the back." In the high-performance workplace, Siddiqi and other management spokespeople asserted, unions aren't necessary or wanted. Work teams have taken their place, and provide workers with a voice.

In the early years of the electronics industry, companies paid relatively low wages, but they attempted to equal, and even surpass union benefit packages, providing medical and dental plans, and even sickleave. At Hewlett-Packard, the company even promised never to lay off workers.

Today, the insecurity of threatened job loss has been combined with paternalism. Permanent jobs are being abolished. Half of the workforce in many large electronics plants work for temporary agencies, without any benefits at all, and at much lower salaries. Some agencies even have offices inside the plants themselves.

"The company always told us they had to be competitive," according to Romie Manan, a worker at National Semiconductor Corporation's non-union Santa Clara plant. "Increasing the company's profitability, they said, would increase our job security. That was the purpose of our workteams - to make us efficient and productive. Our yield rate on each wafer went from 80% to 95%.

"Then the company took the ideas contributed by the experienced workforce in Santa Clara, which they got through the team meetings, and used them to orga-nize new fabs with inexperienced workers in Arlington, Texas, where wages are much lower. The experienced workers lost their jobs. The team meetings stole our experience and ideas, and didn't give us any power to protect our jobs and families."

Manan himself lost his own job, after 16 years at the plant. Over 30,000 semiconductor workers on production lines in Silicon Valley have lost their jobs as well in the last 10 years.

The combination, however, of the lure of labor-management cooperation on the one hand, and the threat of job loss on the other, has successfully prevented workers from organizing unions in the semiconductor industry through the entire fifty years of its existence. This is one aspect of the new face of unionbusting. It doesn't depend on outside consultants. The wealthy corporations who use the strategy employ dozens of people in their own human relations departments to implement it. The strategy is less reactive than the traditional approach, and is in place on a constant basis, whether organizing attempts are in progress or not.

In fact, the ideologues of this approach consider union organizing drives a punishment for companies which have failed. Kirby Dyess, Intel's vice-president of human relations, says that when workers organize unions, "it is a failure of management."

This new approach has a problem, however. Many of the new structures for la-bor/management cooperation are illegal.

A key section of labor law, section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, prohibits company unions. In a 1992 [ck] decision, in the case of Electromation Corp., a federal court held that workteams set up to discourage workers from organizing a union function like the old company unions. Dyess says that large electronics companies are determined to modify that court decision, and to eventually eliminate section 8(a)(2).

The product of that determination was the Team Act. The door to weakening prohibitions against company unions was opened by the Clinton administration, through the Dunlop Commission's recommendations in late 1994. Those recommendations, reflecting statements by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and other administration officials, praised new forms of labor-management cooperation. After the Republican sweep of the 1994 elections, however, both the Senate and House passed the Team Act, which weakened 8(a)(2) beyond recognition. Looking towards his need for labor support in 1996, President Clinton vetoed the bill. Congressional observers, however, think that its reintroduction and passage in a more moderate form is still possible.

Designing a "Union-Proof" Workforce

Modern unionbusting combines the paternalism of the company union with another sophisticated strategy - trying to design a "union-proof" workforce. This is also a spin on old ideas. John Sayles' film Matewan, for instance, recalls the effort by coal operators in the 1920s to bring immigrants of one nationality and race to scab on the strikes of another.

This tactic has again become widespread. In Los Angeles, the cleaning contractors in office buildings in the late 1980s dumped their union workforce, which had a high percentage of African-American workers, and hired immigrants. They shed their union contracts at the same time.

Today in the midwest and southeast, the burgeoning poultry industry is using the same strategy. In tiny towns in Missouri and Arkansas, motels have been converted into permanent living quarters for Mexican and Central American workers, recruited by labor contractors to take jobs in local chicken plants. Some of the largest food corporations in the world, like ConAgra, have instituted systematic recruitment campaigns for immigrant workers. The company boasts of its on-site child care, prenatal care and housing projects, a support infrastructure necessary for workers thousands of miles from home.

While "the burden is on us, not on the employee, to change," ConAgra manager Charles Romeo told Business Week, it's clear that the company sees a big advantage in the situation. In the eyes of managers, immigrant workers are not only a workforce with low wage expectations. Because immigrants face an unknown and unfriendly environment, immigration problems, and ignorance of their labor rights, companies believe they are also less likely to support unions.

While profitable in the short run, however, using immigrants as a bulwark against unions may prove to be many companies' undoing. In Los Angeles in 1991, hundreds of immigrant janitors were attacked by police as they marched for the union in Century City. Public outrage was so great that the building owners and contractors were forced to sign new union agreements. The battle put Justice for Janitors on the national labor radar screen.

Immigrant construction workers in southern California were also brought in to replace a higher-wage workforce in the 1980s. But a movement organized largely by immigrants themselves first struck drywall contractors in 1992, and then framing contractors in 1995. They won union contracts for thousands of workers in some of the first bottom-up, grassroots organizing drives in the construction industry since the 1930s.

Today many union organizers see immigrants as a workforce with militant traditions from their home countries, and high expectations of social and economic justice. A new center for organizing immigrant workers has been established in Los Angeles, to channel the upsurge in activity among immigrant workers into organizing drives in the largest concentration of industrial workers in the world - the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project.

With the new welfare reform bill, and preexisting programs to force welfare recipients into the job market, employers have seen another source of a potentially "union proof" workforce. Since the bill passed, cities have begun to look at workfare recipients as a pool of low-cost labor which can replace existing, unionized employees.

The ink was hardly dry on President Clinton's signature last August when New York City's Municipal Transit Authority told the Transit Union for subway and bus workers that many of its members would be replaced. Negotiating with a gun to its head, the union won agreement that 500 union jobs cleaning subways would be eliminated without layoffs, through attrition, while hundreds of workfare recipients took over those tasks.

Eventually a few workfare recipients may even be allowed by management to remain in permanent, normal-wage, union jobs. But that transition was clearly not what the MTA had in mind. Its goal is a workforce of subway cleaners who receive the equivalent of minimum wage, for doing the same job which union employees now perform for a much higher one. Transit union leaders felt lucky to get the agreement, while rank-and-file militants wanted the union to go to the wall to defend union jobs.

Public employee unions have historically supported the creation of jobs for welfare recipients and unemployed people. But workfare, they say, offers no solution, since there's no guarantee of an eventual permanent job paying a livable wage.

"When you flood the labor market with workfare recipients," explains Fran Bernstein, from the national office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, "you see enormous wage depression for the bottom third of the workforce. That's intentional." Bernstein says that the union is working with welfare rights and service providers organizations on a basic bill of rights for workfare recipients. It would include the right to the same wage and treatment given other employees, the right to organize unions and protection from unfair and arbitrary discipline.

The New York City administration has used a growing number of workfare recipients in recent years, and announced after the bill's passage that it anticipated expanding its workfare workforce to 60,000 by 1998. Many unions in New York City have criticized the municipal workers' union, AFSCME District Council 37, for not mounting a more aggressive challenge to the city's growing workfare program. Stung by the criticism, district executive director Stanley Hill finally called for a moratorium on expansion beyond the present 35,000 enrollees.

While municipal employers and unions gear up for a fight on workfare, private employers are also eyeing the possibilities of the program. Marriott Corporation has developed one of the first efforts to bring workfare into its workforce. The company emphasizes its commitment to providing extensive support to recipients, counseling them about problems like tardiness, rather than simply disciplining or firing them as it does with other workers.

But the stakes in keeping a job are very high for workfare recipients, for whom the weekly benefit check is all that stands between them and the streets. That's an advantage to a company like Marriott, which has mounted a scorched-earth fight to keep its regular employees from organizing unions. While the status of workfare recipients under labor law has yet to be finally determined, employers contend they are not workers at all, and therefore have no right to organize, or the ability to file complaints against health and safety dangers and discrimination.

In September, President Clinton urged expansion of workfare in the private sector. "We cannot create enough public-service jobs to hire these folks," he said, adding that "this has basically got to be a private-sector show."

But with no guarantee about maintaining existing wage levels or protecting the rights of workfare recipients, welfare reform pits them against currently-employed workers in a race to the bottom. In the process, it promises to transform jobs which can support families into ones which can't, and to rob the people who perform them of security, job rights, and their dignity as workers.

Can the Busters be Beaten?

Both Richard Bensinger and Joe Uehlein say that despite the new concentration on organizing by the AFL-CIO's new leadership, they haven't seen a qualitative shift or increase in direct unionbusting activity. That's not surprising, given the boost unionbusting got during the Reagan/Bush years.

But it's also clear that employers have their eyes on unions' most innovative strategies. Like unions, unionbusters learn from experience. After years of seeing the United Farm Workers organize big marches during organizing drives, for instance, last year strawberry growers in Watsonville, California, organized their own march of workers opposed to the union. They clearly understand the importance of public opinion, especially given the history of UFW appeals for consumer boycotts. Growers hired their own public relations agency, the Dolphin Group of San Diego, to manage their image.

Direct activity by anti-union consultants and lawfirms, and their strikebreaking guards, is a big obstacle to the survival and growth of unions. But in the long term, the new face of unionbusting may prove to have an even greater effect. The newest and fastest growing industries - electronics, biotechnology and others - have developed an anti-union structure which workers have yet to crack on a large scale. The use of chronic unemployment and social policies like welfare and immigration reform hold the threat of pitting workers against each other in a vicious competition.

Fighting against unionbusting, therefore, isn't simply a matter of using more intelligent and innovative tactics. Labor has to fight for a social agenda which includes the repeal of welfare reform, and supports equality between immigrant and native-born workers. The organization of unemployed people may prove to be as important as organizing in the workplace.

To not only preserve, but to increase the overall percentage of organized workers takes over 400,000 new union members a year, a rate the AFL-CIO has yet to achieve. While trained fulltime organizers are necessary, along with a commitment to using better and more militant strategy, clearly the 15 million union members in the U.S. themselves have to become involved in union activity in new ways to achieve this result. That requires structural changes inside unions, bringing ordinary members more into decision-making, reducing the often-wide gulf which separates union leadership from the rank-and-file.

In U.S. labor history, large-scale union organizing has always been part of a social movement, fighting for the interests of all workers, organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed. The company unions, the violence of strikebreakers, and the lack of legal rights which faced workers in the 1920s, were swept away a decade later. An upsurge among millions of American workers, radicalized by the depression and leftwing activism, forced corporate acceptance of labor for the first time in the country's history. It mobilized the power of workers necessary to overcome obstacles not dissimilar to those of the present, by projecting a vision of social and economic change which went far beyond, and directly in contradiction, to the prevailing wisdom of its time.

The current changes taking place in U.S. unions may be the beginning of something as large and profound. If they are, then the obstacles of present-day unionbusters can become an historical relic as quickly as did those of an earlier era.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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