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

Part 5
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.

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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