Why Corporations Choose Lawlessness to Fight Unions

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Yves here. This post gives a useful update on the illegal tactics big companies like Apple and Starbucks are using to try to thwart unions. This comes despite the fact that labor laws clearly bar retaliating against workers involved in labor organizing. The attitude clearly is that if corporations can make union drives costly enough to the workers leading the campaign in the short term, the long term (later restitution, fines and reinstatement) does not matter.

This article does not mention that the workplace rights Americans enjoy came at very high cost to the early leaders. The violence used, including hangings, has oddly been airbrushed out of most accounts of US history. One example: Pinkertons was a private army whose major line of business was breaking organizing efforts. From Teen Vogue (virtually alone in the media for having a labor columnist):

…few enemies of the working class have loomed larger than the Pinkertons. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was founded as a private police force in Chicago in 1850, and quickly expanded its reach; its detectives initially focused on catching thieves and burglars, but soon became the bane of the labor movement for their work as enthusiastic, vicious strikebreakers. Throughout the Civil War era and in the decades after, Pinkerton operatives left their bloody mark on strikes, protests, and massacres, and gained a ruthless reputation for protecting the interests of capital by any means necessary. As one newspaper columnist put it, “No man of refined sensibilities would enter the ranks as a hired Hessian of plutocracy, expecting to shoot down his brothers at the command of capital.”

That 2020 article later described how Pinkertons was still up to its labor-busting ways, with the latest sighting working with Amazon in Europe. So this is a well-established practice that powerful companies see no reason to give up.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Workers in Towson, Maryland, have earned the distinction of becoming the first Apple retail workers in the nation to vote to strike over failed union negotiations with their employer. The approximately 100 Apple workers were also the first in the nation to successfully form a union. They did so in 2022, as the Coalition of Organized Retail Employees (CORE), joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Two-thirds of the store’s workers voted to join the union, a resounding success at a company that has long staved off union activity.

Apple could have embraced the Towson store union, respecting the legal right of its workers to bargain collectively for their rights. Instead, the company chose a depressingly familiar path of using its economic power to break labor laws and resist the union at all costs.

Among Apple’s earliest tactics, a bold one even by corporate standards, was to offer all but the Towson store workers new educational and medical perks, saying that the nascent union would have to negotiate for those perks while nonunion workers would be able to enjoy them immediately. The IAM CORE members claimed it was a “calculated” move by Apple, timed just ahead of a second retail union vote at a store in Penn Square, Oklahoma, ostensibly as a warning to those workers, and any others considering union drives, that they could lose out. The National Labor Relations Board, which under President Joe Biden has tended to adhere to its mandate by actually protecting workers more often than not, accused the company of violating the workers’ labor rights. Luckily, the bid failed and a majority of Penn Square’s Apple workers chose to unionize.

Apple’s ugly maneuver echoed that of Starbucks corporation a year later. The coffee giant increased hourly pay for all but its union workers. The NLRB also ruled against Starbucks.

Both Apple and Starbucks may have learned such machinations from Littler Mendelson P.C., the notorious union-busting firm that both corporations have retained to counter worker organizing. Starbucks alone has made use of the services of 110 of the law firm’s attorneys to aggressively resist organized labor at their stores. A former National Labor Relations Board attorney Matthew Bodie called the massive army of anti-union lawyers “unprecedented.” On its website, Littler boasts of the work it has done to “shape workplace practices in a direction that is favorable to employers.”

Union busting is lucrative, raking in more than $400 million in revenues a year for anti-union law firms like Littler Mendelson and Morgan Lewis(which is Amazon’s go-to union buster). It’s no wonder that a large part of their work is advising corporate employers on how best to break laws. Starbucks, for example, is a repeat offender. And so are Apple and Amazon.

The practice of labor law violations in countering unionization is so widespread that the Economic Policy Institute found in 2019 that “Employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5 percent of all union election campaigns.” Given that these are officially deemed violations that have gone through the process of reporting and adjudicating, the number is likely an underestimate.

The reason these major corporations choose lawlessness is that often it works to their benefit. A company like Apple may well see millions of dollars toward union-busting lawyers as money well spent. After all, breaking the law costs very little, with fines for labor law violations capped at meager amounts. There are likely cold, hard calculations behind the cost-benefit analysis of breaking labor laws versus allowing workers to organize for what they want.

Even though workers in two Apple stores have successfully unionized, Apple prevailed in Short Hills, New Jersey where workers organized under the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and failed to win a union vote. Ahead of the vote, CWA accused Apple of illegal anti-union retaliation against one of the Short Hills employees leading the union drive. To Apple, such illegal behavior was likely worth the price. While individual employees have their livelihoods at stake, the company has nothing to lose but a few thousand dollars.

It’s not just about money but also power (which ultimately translates into more money). Workers wanting union representation aren’t just fighting for better pay and benefits but for humane treatment. Corporate profiteering is built on worker insecurity, the ability to hire and fire at will, and offering unpredictable shifts that best serve the company. Indeed, shift scheduling is a key sticking point in IAM CORE’s negotiations with Apple for its Towson store workers who voted to strike.

There are good reasons why corporations fight unions: hundreds of studies point to the negative impact that unions have on corporate profits. Conversely, there is a clear correlation between unions and higher wages, benefits, and worker protections. Even more encouragingly, unions lead to better wages even for non-union employees, putting upward pressure on employers to compete with unionized workers.

Many modern corporate employers who fight unions market themselves as having liberal values and being pro-worker. Apple touts itself as one of the biggest job creators in the U.S., responsible for 2 million jobs in all 50 states, and boasts that “unlike with many companies, both full- and part-time employees are eligible for such benefits as health insurance, matching retirement contributions, and an employee stock purchase plan.”

But, when forced to live up to their stated ideals, such corporations transform into profit-hungry gangsters. “Progressive-branded companies therefore offer free, built-in leverage to worker organizing campaigns,” wrote labor journalist Hamilton Nolan. “There is nothing that will force an employer to live up to all the stuff it said about caring for employees faster than a demand for union recognition.”

Some companies choose to lean into their stated liberal values, most notably Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which refreshingly decided to embrace the newly formed Scoopers United union instead of unleashing union-busting law firms on its workers.

Even Microsoft, a major tech company that has a history of being what the New York Times called a “poster child for corporate ruthlessness,” is seemingly choosing the path of union acceptance. The company’s vice chair and president, Brad Smith announced in 2022 that Microsoft would work collaboratively with unions.

The Times speculated that Microsoft’s decision to embrace unions was an attempt to appease the pro-labor Biden administration ahead of a corporate acquisition of a video game company. Regardless of its reasoning, working with organized labor instead of against it is good for society, even if it’s bad for individual corporate bottom lines.

The good news is that in spite of union membership rates continuing to drop precipitously, the percentage of people who see unions in a favorable light has increased to 71 percent, and among young people a whopping 88 percent. The number of workers petitioning to join unions has jumped, as has strike activity. The only thing standing in the way of converting the union dreams of Apple workers and others into reality is corporate willingness to break labor laws.

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  1. griffen

    Fifty lashes with a wet noodle and it’s back to the grind for youse guys…the beatings will proceed as planned. Morale is negotiable but as your employer might instruct….that way is the door to your next job. We can replace you ! \sarc

    if we apply the trope that corporations are people, then the above named corporations are all behaving like every fictional bully from film…or a James Bond villain. I have the gold so I’ll make the rules. I do tend towards applying the label “worst of the lot” to Amazon fwiw.

    1. Joker

      If we apply the trope that corporations are people, then James Bond should take 2-3 hours to kill one.

  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    Thanks to Yves Smith for posting. Compliments to author Kolhatkar for laying out the facts so clearly.

    In the “Am I an Extremist?” article posted yesterday, esteemed commenter Emma gives a working definition: ”Fascism is liberalism in crisis, where bourgeois control of the society can no longer be hidden under routine enforcement of laws and institutions rigged to favor the bourgeoisie, and more extreme measures must come out into the open to enforce their control.”

    It is true that in the past in the U S of A the campaigns against labor rights and working people were brutal indeed. In U.S. labor history, there are plenty of massacres. Yet the current situation in the U S of A is, in a sense, worse. The percentage of unionized works is down, and the Taft-Hartley Act is thoroughly discriminatory. Further, in the North, the intense desire to “keep labor costs down” combines with the right-to-work laws largely in the South to create great pressure on the work force.

    In the past, the working class had its own institutions like union halls, ethnic societies, musical bands, parish churches, even The Grange, arguably. All of these have been hollowed out.

    Have we reached fascism yet?

    What’s interesting, too, about Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon is that woke-ish sheen of self-touting Enlightenment. Tim Cook, head of Apple, is gay. Things must be pink-washed-ly good, right?

    And the combination of neoliberalism, now in its meth-head stage, and colonialism, which hasn’t exactly ended either, means class warfare at home and wars by proxy and for profiteers abroad.

    The EU has tried to deliver propaganda about being more favorable to workers, but even here in Piedmont, with its long history of Reds (in the real sense) like Gramsci and major battles over labor rights, the EU’s program of ortholiberal economics has amounted to a gradual squeezing of the unions and of the working class into a kind of torpor. There are some green shoots here, but the effort to re-balance the economy will be herculean. (Meanwhile, the German Greens, by Emma’s definition, have veered into fascism and show no interest in the travails of German workers and farmers.)

    Nevertheless, as someone who grew up in a union family: Solidarity. Bread and Roses. And, yes, it comes down to “which side are you on?”

  3. NotTimothyGeithner

    The short answer is Biden is President. There is simply no fear of legal consequences especially with Trump on the horizon. Biden is afraid of men in suits even when they directly work against Biden.

  4. Mikel

    As one newspaper columnist put it, “No man of refined sensibilities would enter the ranks as a hired Hessian of plutocracy, expecting to shoot down his brothers at the command of capital.”

    Just got a kick out of that phrasing…

    Anyway, I’m going to be a bit less diplomatic and say they choose lawlessness because they are terrorists.
    It’s the reasoning of terrorists.

  5. Fastball

    This is the latest exhibit in an endless stream of exhibits that show that only swiftly administered hard prison time for corporate officers and company owners is going to dissuade corporations from acting in a completely sociopathic, destructive-to-all-civilization way.

    When are we going to acknowledge for once and all that mere fines don’t work? For either corporations or the billionaires that own them?

    Time to start tossing these people in dank dungeons and seizing ALL their assets, as is done for the so called “little people”. Time to start using China’s solution.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      From what I understand of it, I do like the way China deals with these situations. The Western propaganda is that unruly Chinese executives are “disappeared” but I’ve never seen any proof of this. The only one I did see documentation for was one former executive who was busted down to teaching courses at a Japanese university. That sounds about right to me.

  6. JBird4049

    Obviously corporations use these tactics because they work, and they have been airbrushed out of history because the truth of the struggles between labor and capitalism is an inconvenient truth. The truth is not only inconvenient for business, but for powerful generally including the government, which explains the airbrushed history of violence in America politics generally as well. Political, union, and social activists all faced lethal violence, but aside from a very few mentions its all missing from the textbooks.

    Speaking of textbooks, which are mainly approved by very conservative agencies in Texas and California because those states are the largest markets, and publishers will make their cheapest books meet their approval first. That is if they print any other editions at all. The cheapest, most anodyne or troublesome, books are usually approved in school districts across the country.

    And since history generally is disdained, who reads it after leaving school including colleges? Colleges that also deal with the same attacks as the state government and local school districts on education albeit to a lesser degree. Ignorance is very profitable for some and very costly for many.

    Finally, the union movement and all the other social and political movements of any kind were all deeply intertwined. Destroying the union movement weakened them all and since they were all about the power struggle between the powerful and everyone else, ultimately the 1% and 99%, destroying the history of it was necessary for the current success of oligarchy.

    1. Alice X

      With the 1935 Wagner Act, employees were guaranteed the right to form a union and if recognized by the employer, which was not mandatory, could negotiate an agreement that required new hires to join the same. Employers were banned from the previous practice of forming company unions, which favored their recognizing the employees unions. There were still battles to be waged but the unions generally won.

      There were numerous attempts to roll back the 1935 Act which failed, until the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act succeeded, at least in part, whereupon the various States could restrict the right to negotiate a requirement for new hires to join the union. Afterwards, those that did were called the Right to Work States, though the unions were still required to represent all of the workers, thus weakening union resources.

      Of course, there is much more to all of this. The Dims never got around to repealing the 1947 Act, though they’ve had ample opportunities.

      1. Alice X

        Actually, I realize now that with the Wagner Act, employers were required to negotiate with the union, but they didn’t in many cases, for some time.

    2. Anon

      As Gen Z says, “whoosh!” (the sound the point makes as it flies past your head)… as an aside, I believe that’s what the “Right-to-Work” laws are about, they make it illegal for a union to demand or enforce membership.

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