How Employers Are Trying to Thwart a Wave of Union Drives

Yves here. This headline may seem a little dog-bites-man-ish, since when aren’t employers trying to block union formation, routinely with illegal threats and impediments. This post outlines some of the examples of thuggish behavior by companies that are clearly profitable enough to pay workers better. But despite the aggressive corporate sabotage efforts, organizers are becoming more effective at countering these tactics.

I encourage readers to boycott anti union shops like Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joes, or at least cut back on your patronage.

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

Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his coworkers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Alabama, only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his workstation, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers  closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers rather than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent during the first six months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but also workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

So far, baristas have persisted in organizing about 200 stores, despite retaliation that includes the closure of unionized locations, the firing of union activists and the company’s withholding of pay raises for union workers. Instead of caving in to Starbucks’ bullying, workers filed ULP charges for these violations.

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York also organized, despite the company’s rollout of an actual “playbook” to thwart union drives. In addition to holding captive audience meetings and plastering even the restrooms with anti-union messages, the company’s tactics include hiring “vulnerable students” to dilute pro-union sentiment and schmoozing politicians to burnish the company’s reputation.

Bulman knows how essential it is for union supporters to sustain their momentum because, as he and his coworkers learned at FreightCar America, only a union can bring lasting improvements to a workplace.

“They do a 180 and go back to what they were doing after you vote no,” he said, noting that companies may temporarily improve conditions to derail organizing efforts.

“They’re not going to tell the truth,” Bulman continued, noting FreightCar America moved the plant to Mexico even after workers voted down the union. “You’ve got to stick together and stand strong against them.”

As public approval of unions soars, corporations can feel the tide turning against them.

With President Joe Biden’s support, the House passed bipartisan legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—that would ban captive audience meetings, impose financial penalties on executives who block union drives and stop companies from stalling negotiations for a first contract.

The bill, not yet taken up in the Senate, also would fast-track legal proceedings for workers illegally suspended or fired for union activity, and it would give workers the right to sue employers for violating their labor rights.

“It would definitely level the playing field,” noted Mario Smith, recalling the heavy odds workers at Kumho Tire in Macon, Georgia, overcame to join the USW in 2021.

Kumho fired Smith, a leader of the organizing drive, amid a vicious union-busting campaign that included fearmongering, captive audience meetings, bullying of individual employees and anti-union videos running on an endless loop.

“It was indescribable,” Smith, who now works at a USW-represented paper mill, said of the toxic environment Kumho created to avoid giving workers a voice.

While denying workers a voice, however, hypocritical corporations exploit the tax code and force ordinary Americans to subsidize their hectoring and intimidation campaigns.

The No Tax Breaks for Union Busting Act, recently introduced in Congress, would change that. No longer would corporations be able to write off the costs of ad campaigns, union avoidance consultants and other anti-union activities.

“Corporations shouldn’t be interfering with workers’ right to organize,” Senator Bob Casey said in announcing the bill. “They certainly shouldn’t be able to write off anti-unionization campaigns as a business expense.”

After deciding against organizing, Bulman said, his colleagues at FreightCar America quickly realized that they’d been duped by the company’s lies about unions and manipulated by bosses who stoked their concerns about the plant’s future.

As it turned out, safety issues and other problems plagued the workers right up until the time the company abandoned the facility and shifted the jobs south of the border.

“They scared everybody into voting no,” Bulman recalled. “Fear is a great motivator. That’s exactly how they operate.”

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  1. Questa Nota

    Love the tax angle.
    Follow the money.
    To starve one of the beasts, get rid of carried interest.

  2. YankeeFrank

    These union drives and the antitrust putsch Matt Stoller has been reporting are two lights in the darkness. If we’re ever going to get out of this mess we’re going to need a lot more but it does give one some hope to see. Annihilating neoliberal capitalism won’t be easy but if the west is going to survive its must be done. Neoliberalism’s nihilistic moral, spiritual and physical degradation is truly anti-human in every way. To quote Walter Sobchak, “say what you want about the tenets of national socialism, at least its an ethos”. I fear we may get to know something like it before too long.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    Years ago I used to see IBEW-produced bumper stickers showing an American flag and the slogan “Live Better: Work Union.” Sums things up pretty well.

    It’s also no accident that major increases in union density corresponded to large advances, not just in living standards, but civil rights and civil liberties, since union contracts had non-discrimination clauses before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the right-to-picket was a forerunner to enabling mass assemblies in public.

    Take look at the podium when MLK is speaking at the March On Washington (the slogan for which was “A March For Jobs and Freedom”) in 1963: he’s surrounded by members of Local 1199 (NYC hospital workers), which was founded by old-school Socialists who’d survived the Red Scare and kept organizing.

    If there is any hope for this country, it lies in a mass expansion of class consciousness among workers, and the organizing and mobilizing that follows from that.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Slim checking in from Tucson.

      Five years ago, I went solar here at the Arizona Slim Ranch. This process included upgrading my electrical service, and wow, what a treat.

      Why? Because I got to watch — and photograph — members of IBEW Local 1116 at work. The IBEW guys ran the Tucson Electric Power lines over to the the service mast on my roof, and this involved work on the utility pole. Nothing like seeing pole climbers in action — it’s like having a front-row seat at the ballet.

      Count me as an IBEW fan.

  4. dcblogger

    it is not just about greed, it is about power. Most of these companies are consumer brands, their corporate reputation directly impacts their profitability. But the owners are so blind with class war anger that they cannot see the massive damage union busting does to their company.

  5. Anthony G Stegman

    Rather than mere civil penalties for unfair labor practices there needs to be criminal penalties. Executives need to be locked up. Talk about using fear as a great motivator.

  6. Anthony G Stegman

    I’m guessing that it will be a very heavy lift to get people to eschew Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and the like. Their market positions are so strong that they have little fear of consumer boycotts. That is why they act with such impunity (plus, the legal system is heavily skewed to their advantage).

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Starbucks should be easier to eschew than Amazon in many places because most places with a Starbucks also have a Not Starbucks coffeeplace as well. So Starbucks users would just have to overcome a lifetime of entrenched habit and deep inertia to go to a Not Starbucks instead.

      Of course I too have read/heard about Starbucks burning its coffeebeans to create that special signature “scorched Starbucks” taste. And Starbucks uses a very-high-caffeine coffee to get people mildly addicted to its high levels of caffeine, and the scorched Starbucks taste says The Caffeine Is Here! So a number of people will not eschew Starbucks for anything.

      But maybe enough people can be brought to overcome mere inertia enough to toddle on over to the nearest Not Starbucks to be able to collapse certain targetted Starbuckses in place. At the very least, if a disgruntled “younger-leaning” part of the customer base could try cancelling every Starbucks where people who look like them have been fired or persecuted for joining or leading a union, Starbucks could learn the price of anti-union activity.

      Cancel Starbucks. Just Say No . . . to Starbucks. The counter-Starbucks campaign could even satirize those funny old DARE propaganda efforts. SARE . . . for Starbucks Awareness Resistance Education.
      SARE to be great. etc.

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