The New Face of Unionbusting
by David Bacon
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.
Part 1. Unionbusting Gets Sophisticated
PEACE & JUSTICE
WORKPLACE | STRIKES | PORTRAITS | FARMWORKERS | UNIONS | STUDENTS
Special Project: TRANSNATIONAL WORKING COMMUNITIES
HOME | NEWS | STORIES | PHOTOGRAPHS | LINKS
photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999
website by DigIt Designs © 1999