How Employers Punish Workers for Forming Unions

Yves here. Think forming unions gets workers better deal with their employers? As Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” As Tom Conway explains, companies have a boatload of tricks to stymie sitting down with new unions.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his coworkers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

That’s exactly what would have helped Toto and his colleagues four years ago.

The workers at Solvay organized to obtain safer working conditions and a voice at the chemical plant, recalled Toto, who relocated to Pasadena after the company closed the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, facility where he originally worked. His wife, already battling cancer, remained in the couple’s Philadelphia area home to be in comfortable surroundings and to stay close to her doctors.

Talks stretched out month after month as Solvay’s negotiators refused to schedule regular bargaining sessions, made onerous proposals solely intended to bog down the discussions and even balked at excusing workers for jury duty. But nothing infuriated union members as much as finding the company’s chief negotiator asleep one day in a room where he had ostensibly gone to study union proposals.

“It’s about discouraging you,” Toto said of the company’s ploys. “It’s about breaking you down. It was also frustrating for me because it was taking time away from the last year I had with my wife.”

Just like Toto and his colleagues, workers at the Bishop Noa Home in Escanaba, Michigan, made modest demands that they expected to speedily resolve at the bargaining table.

Yet more than three years after voting to join the USW, the 55 certified nursing assistants and dietary, environmental services and laundry workers continue fighting for a contract even as they put their lives on the line to care for the facility’s residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The home refuses to accept the workers’ choice to organize. It brought in a union-busting attorney who belittles workers at the bargaining table, makes unreasonable proposals, spurns efforts to bring the parties together and drags out talks to try to break the workers’ morale.

Marcia Hardy, a dietary worker who has dedicated 35 years to Bishop Noa, said she and other negotiating committee members repeatedly made good-faith compromises that they felt certain would speed talks along.

“That didn’t happen,” she said, noting the home not only rebuffed the workers’ goodwill but refused to budge from its own proposals.

“They don’t want to have to answer to anybody but themselves,” Hardy said of the facility’s efforts to silence workers. “They will not give that up for anything. It’s just so disheartening because you’ve put your heart and soul into the place.”

Throughout the pandemic, workers have been putting in extra hours, taking on additional responsibilities and serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from loved ones, all so Bishop Noa can continue providing a top level of care. And although a contract would afford opportunities for building on that record of excellence, Hardy said, Bishop Noa prefers to wage war on workers instead.

She and her colleagues, who have widespread community support, will keep fighting for the agreement they earned. “If I give up,” Hardy said, “they win.”

Solvay, Bishop Noa and other employers that drag out negotiations squander resources that could be better used to provide safe working conditions, serve customers or otherwise improve operations.

Toto said workers want to put contract talks behind them and “live our lives.” And he predicted that the PRO Act would hold employers’ feet to the fire and finally force them to approach contract talks with the urgency the task requires.

“It puts accountability back at the bargaining table,” Toto said. “The job is to go in there and get it done in a timely fashion.”

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  1. Donna

    What am I missing? What good is a union if you are not prepared to walk off the job? I am the daughter of a member of the IBEW. When I was around the age of 6 in the 50s, my mother used to dig through the sofa cushions to find money for a 23 cent loaf of bread for school lunches. When I was around 7 or 8, my Dad participated in several strikes over a series of years. He went to some FDA place and brought home powdered milk and huge chunks of cheese so we could survive. By the time I was 9, my mother never went through couch cushions again for bread money. Strike action worked back then. Could it work today?

    1. GramSci

      In this case the problem seems to be that if the workers strike, the inmates will suffer. The workers care, and management doesn’t.

    2. pck

      This is speculation, but might there be two different thresholds of organizing for a union vote and a strike? It’s one thing to ask folks to vote yes on an anonymous ballot, it’s another to ask them to very un-anonymously strike.

      It’s also hard to do all that organizing to get the union vote, and organizational attrition or turnover could be a thing. It’s easy to imagine organizers getting burnt out and discouraged after a successful certification and then finding it hard to keep going for another 2 years of the BS mentioned in the article.

      Columbia Grad Employees are doing just this though – striking after 2 years without a contract after a successful certification vote. So we will see how successful it is. Last I checked the strike had very clearly changed managements tone, but I haven’t looked to see how bargaining went during week 1 of the strike.

      1. Makesi

        Im a union organizer. Yes there are two thresholds. For a union vote the threshold is 50%+1 of those who vote, and is set by the NLRB. The threshold for a strike is self-defined and based on who has more power. “Super-majority” is the standard way to phrase it but any serious organizer knows that anything under 80% means you’re in trouble. Over 90% is good.

        And this is 90% willing to put it all on the line and walk–literally challenge corporate power. Its a lot more than casting a ballot. It takes an enormous amount of work and preparation to do this.

        1. pck

          me too – and the thresholds are definitely different in my experience. my only experience is with grad students though, and there’s some weirdness that I feel like might not apply to workers in general. For instance, most workers have both teaching and research responsibilities with different bosses in each case with different types of relationships and different union protections. Another thing is that a lot of folks see grad school as a place where they’re okay suffering because it’s a finite time and you have hope of a brighter future afterward. So, I don’t know how well my experience generalizes. Thanks for the info!

        2. Whiteylockmandoubled

          The law allows employers to permanently replace workers in an economic strike. Wasn’t the case in the fifties.

      1. Whiteylockmandoubled

        Not really the issue. The shop would in all likelihood be joining a local union that may or may not have a strike fund, and strikes like these would ultimately have to be financed by the international union.

        That’s part of the point of organizing with an existing union. It does mean that decision making power is shared between the rank and file leaders of the drive and the leaders of the local and international that the workers have decided to join.

  2. dcrane

    The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

    Since the Democrats control the Senate, if the bill faces difficulties in the Senate it must be primarily due to a lack of Democrat support.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, as we saw with the $15 minimum wage, and the Tories saw under Theresa May, a bare majority does not equal control. It gives dissidents within the party tremendous leverage. Jim Manchin is in charge.

      1. zagonostra

        “It gives dissidents within the party tremendous leverage.” Yes, but apparently “progressives” aren’t dissidents because they don’t use their leverage, always yielding and giving obeisance to their leaders instead of fighting when the rubber hits the road (I’m thinking of the “Squad” and Bernie specifically).

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Progressives are in the House, not the Senate. Name a senator who would go up against Amazon locating offices in NYC as AOC did (and even she’s had to kiss Pelosi’s ring a few times because the Squad is a media creation and the progressives in the House are too few in number to do more than make noise, which is useful in the long haul in moving the Overton window but not much in getting bills passed).

          Did you forget that Kamala Harris has the most progressive voting record in the Senate? Would you call her a progressive? ‘Nuff said.

          1. Bob Hertz

            Thanks for posting the Conway article. His writing is always inspiring in a very difficult but important cause.

            As an aside, I think that AOC’s campaign against Amazon’s consideration of New York City was a big mistake. Here is a summary of my own view:

            “First, New York City/State will receive an estimated $27.5 billion in total revenues over the next 25 years, a nine-to-one return on a $3 billion investment, and will create 25,000 jobs in LIC, with an average annual salary of $150,000. $1.525 billion of NYS’s package are “performance-based direct incentives”, including $1.2 billion based on a percentage from future Amazon workers’ salaries. NYC’s contribution of $897 million in income tax credits and a $386 million property tax break over 25 years are “as of right” incentives: these would be automatically offered to any company that moved to NYC (outside of Manhattan) from elsewhere. In short, NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio assume that Amazon and its employees will pay back far more than they will be given in the long run,”

            1. tegnost

              I think one of the arguments against amazon was that the influx of new highly paid workers would do as it’s done in other cities and drive rents through the roof for the service sector employees being exploited by said influxxers, and essentially ruining the place.

              1. Synoia

                IMHO NY for Amazon was always BS. It had to be in the DC area to garner the Feds Computing (AVS) and Supply needs.

                It was a rigged contest to extract the least cost from the winning City.

            2. Yves Smith Post author

              Sorry, I agree with what AOC did. The city is too dominated by affluent professionals as it is. It was a much better place to live in the 1980s, when crime was coming down but still high enough to deter the sort of person who likes sterile personality-devoid suburbs “because safe” from living there.

              Amazon would have moved all those employees to work at home with Covid, nuking City revenues. To collect income and sales taxes, you have to be a resident and you can dis-establish yourself in 183 days, I believe fewer if you never filed a tax return there yet.

              And per tegnost, Amazon was planning on locating in Long Island City, as in Queens. Queens is the last dimly affordable not-horrific-commuting-distance working class neighborhood left.

      2. jackiebass

        You are right. In most cases it takes 60 voted to advance legislation. Neither party has 60 so neither party actually can pass bills on their own. There are a few exceptions but they can’t be used for every piece of legislation. I remember educating a friend over a beer in a local bar. He said since the democrats had 54 senators they could pass any bill they wanted to pass.I reminded him that because of the filibuster it actually took 60 votes. I think the filibuster should return to what it once was. To filibuster you should have to actually talk before the senate all of the time, not like it now is. I remember watching Bernie Sanders filibustering . He actually talked before the senate for a long period of time.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            You are treading on thin ice here. You are already in moderation for arguing in bad faith and Making Shit Up.

            The Senate and House have long established procedures and they aren’t changed often or easily.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Manchin is not “the Democrats.” He is one Democrat.

          You tried to depict the up in the air status of the PRO Act as a party position, as opposed to Dems barely having control of the Senate, the Dems being generally weak on party discipline (compared to Rs) and Manchin coming from a red state and thus having to cater to Republican-leaning views as a matter of survival. So you are now arguing in bad faith by moving the goalposts.

          In case you missed it, West Virginia is scored as deep red by pollsters, voted for Trump in 2020, has a Republican governor, Republican control of its state Senate and House, the junior Senate seat, and all the 3 House seats. Manchin is an anomaly in his state, big time and has to tread accordingly.

  3. Another Scott

    One other thing that people here should remember is that a lot of Democrats in the House likely voted for the bill because they knew that it doesn’t stand a chance in the Senate. They get credit for voting for a labor-friendly bill, but the corporate money isn’t too upset because the bill still gets defeated. If the bill actually had a chance of passing the senate, I’m sure that enough corporatist Democrat votes would have been found to defeat the bill.

  4. Ep3

    In the public sector, Michigan has a law that says police & fire workers receive retro pay for for wage increases in contracts. So what the local govts will do is pit different departments (each with different unions) against each other by giving one group a treat while telling the other group things are not affordable. There is no incentive to settle contracts outside of police & fire groups, as you prevent union wage increases (and while a contract is expired, individual wage increases are frozen as well, and are not retro either!). Then the govt will hire an arbiter who will rule in favor of the govt entity with the usual “govt broke, pension costs, etc etc etc.

  5. Michael C.

    The Proact could be a game changer for the working class if it does not get watered down. Ending Right to Work, allowing sympathy strikes by other unions, shortening the time after a yes vote where a company has to engage in serious negotiations, disallowing captive meetings by the company, and eliminating the company’s firing of those engaged in working to get a union–this bill has teeth if they are not pulled by the Senate making it toothless. If this fails, the fractured working class must be organized, with or without the support of labor, too many of whom only deal in business unionism and not the fight for all workers and the many issues of the working class–single-payer healthcare, environmental standards, restoring public institutions, education, etc,. The gutless Democrats must end the filibuster, and the supposed friend of labor Biden must whip the votes like LBJ use to do. But for me, Biden is a worthless president unless mass organization and public turmoil forces him to live up to his words.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I thought unions were advantageous to employers. Without a union employers have no one to negotiate with when faced with wild-cat strikes and various forms of sabotage — like work-to-rule, work slowdowns, and other more destructive forms of sabotage. Of course, I believe many of these actions might fall under the rubric of domestic terrorism. Protecting the right to organize is not enough when so many legal means for workers to attempt to leverage better work conditions and pay have been made so toothless.

    Some of the stuff Solvay Texas makes is pretty noxious. I suspect the US Government might be wise to take a closer look at the practices inside the company. Recalling the Waco explosion of 2013, and some of the chemical spills after Hurricane Harvey I believe it is fair to suggest Texas businesses are none too careful about handling dangerous chemicals. Are the jobs and pay at Solvay really that good considering the stuff the plant makes? I imagine the workers at Solvay must be squeezed pretty tightly to so value their jobs that they risk their safety to keep them. As for laws to protect unions and assure negotiations in good faith by both parties, what good are new laws like the PRO Act without enforcement? The same may be said about the OSHA laws and EPA laws which I suspect might apply to operations of a chemical plant.

    1. Synoia

      A Union Member friend of mine asserts “Companies get the Unions they deserve.” A Union’s actions are driven by the behavior of management.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      My father was a plant manager and later manufacturing exec in the paper industry. Never had a bad word to say about unions. My mother confirms that. But he also respected the know-how of the plant employees. Made a point of working >10 hours every day so he could see the men on all three shifts and get their input.

      1. Basil Pesto

        Very tangentially, I’m sure you’re familiar with it but I read Melville’s ‘Paradise of Bachelors/Tartarus of Maids’ the other day, the latter tale of which is based on his visit to a paper mill in Massachusetts (the former being set in the Inns of Court in London). Not to say your father ran an operation that bears comparison with Tartarus!! But I thought it was an interesting insight into the working conditions of the 19th century. Quite Amazonian, really.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          My father ran coated paper mills. Continuous process, so had to keep them running 24/7 except for scheduled maintenance. Capital costs were huge so downtime was a bigger deal than labor cost. And coated paper is very fussy (the coating gets done while the paper is wet) and so prone to downtime.

          1. Mark Gisleson

            It sounds like your father was probably very good at hearing what his workers told him. No one wants to make a bad product but it’s amazing how often modern managers insist on doing just that by refusing to listen to what the workers are telling them.

  7. Sound of the Suburbs

    The search for power and control.

    Mankind first started to produce a surplus with early agriculture.
    It wasn’t long before the elites learnt how to read the skies, the sun and the stars, to predict the coming seasons to the amazed masses and collect tribute.
    They soon made the most of the opportunity and removed themselves from any hard work to concentrate on “spiritual matters”, i.e. any hocus-pocus they could come up with to elevate them from the masses, e.g. rituals, fertility rights, offering to the gods …. etc and to turn the initially small tributes, into extracting all the surplus created by the hard work of the rest.
    The elites became the representatives of the gods and they were responsible for the bounty of the earth and the harvests.
    As long as all the surplus was handed over, all would be well.

    The class structure emerges.
    Upper class – do as little as they can get away with and get most of the rewards
    Middle class – administrative/managerial class who have enough to live a comfortable life
    Working class – do the work, and live a basic subsistence existence where they get enough to stay alive and breed

    Their techniques have got more sophisticated over time, but this is the underlying idea.

    “What have we got that they haven’t got?” those at the top look for a means of power and control
    Land – Feudalism
    Money – Capitalism

    The land scam (feudalism)
    We will let you use this piece of land, and leave you with enough to provide a basic subsistence existence and we will take the rest of your produce.
    The money scam (capitalism)
    You do the work, and we will pay you a wage that will provide a basic subsistence existence and we will take the rest as profit.

    As the money scam (capitalism) replaced the land scam (feudalism) the UK’s aristocracy barely noticed. They lived in luxury and leisure and other people did all the work.
    The Classical Economists could never imagine those at the bottom moving out of a bare subsistence existence as that was the way it had always been.

    This is capitalism in its rawest form, as it was in the beginning.
    Small state, unregulated capitalism.

    It was all going so well until the classical economists started poking their noses in and began to work out what was going on.
    They could never imagine those at the bottom rising out of a bare subsistence existence because that was the way it had always been.
    They noticed the upper class did very little and got most of the rewards.

    The classical economist, Adam Smith:
    “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money.”

    The classical economists were a complete nightmare who gave the whole game away.
    They needed a new economics to hide all this, neoclassical economics.

    The classical economists could never imagine those at the bottom rising out of a bare subsistence existence as that was the way it had always been.
    How did those at the bottom rise above their station?
    They started banding together to demand better pay and conditions.
    That’s it; we need to smash the unions.

    The more observant may have noticed.
    The widespread prosperity of Keynesian capitalism was attributed to something capitalism itself produces.
    It doesn’t.

  8. LowellHighlander

    It seems to me that unions must start thinking long-term: building worker-owned co-operatives (with no joint stock of any kind) in industries where such enterprises could prove feasible at small scale immediately. This is where the expertise of the U.S. Federation of Worrker Cooperatives and WellSpring Cooperative comes in. For working models, people should watch the “movie” called Shift Change.

  9. Sound of the Suburbs

    It’s all about investors, so people with money can make more money.
    Earning a living is so 20th century, we are trying to phase it out.
    The transition will be a painful.

  10. Mikey Joe

    This article reminded me of the Stella D’oro factory in the Bronx, NY. There was already a union there but the new owners did not treat them fairly and eventually closed the factory then moved it to Ohio.

  11. treesthemselves

    My partner’s workplace, an independent retail store, voted to form a union last week and was voluntarily recognized by the owner. !!

    Since Covid most of the long time staff (who are over 60) stayed home on unemployment. The owner hired a slew of new 25-year-olds and under who were willing to work retail during a pandemic. Customer interactions around masks and safety were so hostile and it was extremely stressful for staff. Ownership wasn’t being strict with safety, on the theory of not wanted to alienate any potential buyers. The staff members who were most vocal (but always professional) to customers about keeping their masks on inevitably made some shoppers mad. These same staff members then had their hours cut or jobs threatened.

    Young workers (and the older ones who lent their votes to unionize) are looking for safety protection and have nothing to lose by joining a union right now. My hope is that unions recognize the generational opportunity. I also hope the optimism around unionizing isn’t squashed by multi-year contract negotiations.

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