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

Part 2
"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.

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?

Top of Page


photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

website by DigIt Designs © 1999