David Bacon Stories & Photographs
to print, use this version Unions
The New Face of Unionbusting
by David Bacon

Part 1
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.

Part 1. Unionbusting Gets Sophisticated
Part 2. "Take the Head Off Before It Has a Chance to Grow"
Part 3. The Blood and Guts Strikebreakers
Part 4. The Modern Company Union
Part 5. Designing a "Union-Proof" Workforce
Part 6. Can the Busters be Beaten?

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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