The New Face of Unionbusting
by David Bacon
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."
Part 1. Unionbusting Gets Sophisticated
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