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

Part 6
Can the Busters be Beaten?

Both Richard Bensinger and Joe Uehlein say that despite the new concentration on organizing by the AFL-CIO's new leadership, they haven't seen a qualitative shift or increase in direct unionbusting activity. That's not surprising, given the boost unionbusting got during the Reagan/Bush years.

But it's also clear that employers have their eyes on unions' most innovative strategies. Like unions, unionbusters learn from experience. After years of seeing the United Farm Workers organize big marches during organizing drives, for instance, last year strawberry growers in Watsonville, California, organized their own march of workers opposed to the union. They clearly understand the importance of public opinion, especially given the history of UFW appeals for consumer boycotts. Growers hired their own public relations agency, the Dolphin Group of San Diego, to manage their image.

Direct activity by anti-union consultants and lawfirms, and their strikebreaking guards, is a big obstacle to the survival and growth of unions. But in the long term, the new face of unionbusting may prove to have an even greater effect. The newest and fastest growing industries - electronics, biotechnology and others - have developed an anti-union structure which workers have yet to crack on a large scale. The use of chronic unemployment and social policies like welfare and immigration reform hold the threat of pitting workers against each other in a vicious competition.

Fighting against unionbusting, therefore, isn't simply a matter of using more intelligent and innovative tactics. Labor has to fight for a social agenda which includes the repeal of welfare reform, and supports equality between immigrant and native-born workers. The organization of unemployed people may prove to be as important as organizing in the workplace.

To not only preserve, but to increase the overall percentage of organized workers takes over 400,000 new union members a year, a rate the AFL-CIO has yet to achieve. While trained fulltime organizers are necessary, along with a commitment to using better and more militant strategy, clearly the 15 million union members in the U.S. themselves have to become involved in union activity in new ways to achieve this result. That requires structural changes inside unions, bringing ordinary members more into decision-making, reducing the often-wide gulf which separates union leadership from the rank-and-file.

In U.S. labor history, large-scale union organizing has always been part of a social movement, fighting for the interests of all workers, organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed. The company unions, the violence of strikebreakers, and the lack of legal rights which faced workers in the 1920s, were swept away a decade later. An upsurge among millions of American workers, radicalized by the depression and leftwing activism, forced corporate acceptance of labor for the first time in the country's history. It mobilized the power of workers necessary to overcome obstacles not dissimilar to those of the present, by projecting a vision of social and economic change which went far beyond, and directly in contradiction, to the prevailing wisdom of its time.

The current changes taking place in U.S. unions may be the beginning of something as large and profound. If they are, then the obstacles of present-day unionbusters can become an historical relic as quickly as did those of an earlier era.

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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