Union-Busting: Of Turkeys and Hams  

My friend sent me this piece recently and as I read it, I thought about my dad's shop.

Dad's a tool and die maker and held a union job for much of his career, until the 1980's when the shop he worked for shut its doors. One day he had a job, the next, we were picking up a Turkey and Ham from Valu King from the union guys. I still remember my mom taking the ham with tears in her eyes. The union guy from our local gave mom a hug.

One of the things I took from this article is that there is a coordinated PROGRAM of lies and propaganda out there about unions. And anyone who might look in the smallest way like a sympathizer to working men and women around the country, well, they are immediately taken out.

...The younger guy strode over to an unoccupied seat in our classroom and, with evident pleasure, picked up a place card. “Richard,” he announced, “is no longer with us,” ostentatiously ripping Richard’s place card in two.

Another example dealt with a supervisor who had harbored sympathy towards union organizing. “You know what we do with a supervisor who comes to you and says, ‘Hey, boss, it wasn’t me, they said it was the company’?” asked Stieff. He jerked his tie upwards against his neck to suggest a hanging—the only time the lawyers openly hinted at lawbreaking.

The anti-union seminar that Mr. Levine writes about is training from the law firm Jackson Lewis. You see, they teach executives how to deal with workers who come to them about unions...

One such scenario dealt with union authorization cards being circulated at a factory. Stief, playing a confused worker, turned to a hotel executive named Kevin. “How are you doing, boss?” said Stief. “My uncle is in the UFCW and I met an organizer with them, Rob Youblind. I need to fill out a card about interest in a union. What should I do with the card?”
Kevin didn’t know. Stief advised him to warn his employee of the dangers of signing his names to such a document. “It’s a legally binding contract, it’s like a power of attorney, it’s like signing a blank check,” Stief said. “When you talk to them, bring it down to their level.”

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had with my best friend recently. Let's call her Anne. Anne is a senior executive at a large HMO. Once of the HMO subsidiaries has been experiencing "union talk" recently. As an trade-unionist, I explain to her she has a problem with her subsidiary's management. She dismisses this idea easily with "The employees are just terrified about the office closing because a nearby base is closing." And this is what ensued:

Anne: If the Government weren't moving all of these government jobs to another state, we wouldn't have all the union talk now.

Me: Um, I don't think so.

Anne: It's the Government's fault and we have to pay for the issue. I told the subsidiary to give the workers a small raise. A dollar more per hour in this area will discourage the unionizing. If American unions were like European Unions, I'd have no problem with them, but here, they're lazy.

Me: What the f*&k are you talking about? In the US we can't do a general strike like you can in Europe. We don't have the kind of vacations the unions have negotiated in Europe. American companies hate dealing with unions here, often preventing unions from working with the companies to make the companies profit...

Anne: No, you've got it all wrong. American unions hate companies and try to drive them into the ground. In Europe, they work with companies, here, they tear them down. Take the subway strike or road work. In the US, unions negotiate to work road construction during rush hour. They never work nights.

Me: Are you crazy? Seriously, are you? I worked on a road crew, when it's needed, the crews worked at night under lights to prevent massive traffic jams. It can't always be done, but when it can, that's how they...

[she likes to cut me off]

Anne: No, that's not how it is at all. Unions make the workers lazy. And they refuse to work hours that most everyone else needs these workers to work. Like the Subway strike. They were striking so they could make more money and work less hours. No one wanted to have to drive a train at night. And New Yorkers hated them for it. They didn't support the strikers.

Me: No, that's not true, it was a successful strike and when the union members voted on the contract, they got what they wanted.

Anne: No, they didn't, I lived there, I know!

Me: Anne, I followed that strike. You know I follow strikes and organizing. You got a filtered anti-union media version of what happened.

Anne: No, you're wrong.

Me: I'll send you the info on this.

I love my best friend, but when it comes to unions, I find myself arguing with her. I want to have a discussion about all of this, not argue. I want to help her understand that there is a problem to deal with and it is most likely internal management. I want her to understand that a base closure is not likely to push any Americans I've ever met to want to start a union, especially since it's clear what happens to those who try to start one, they're fired. The issues she has with her subsidiary is simply more complex and much bigger than she currently understands

I believe that most anti-union stuff Anne hears translates into fear and loathing on the part of anti-union folks, it shouldn't translate into bad unions or bad workers. It's like this article's examples of employers refusing to negotiate...

But if everything failed, and we found ourselves negotiating with a newly formed union, then we still shouldn’t lose heart. Instead, we could continue to undermine the union by rejecting all of its demands during negotiations. (In fact, in about a third of the cases after a union victory, employers don’t even agree to a contract.) The trick was in how to word refusals. First, with a shout, Stief demonstrated what not to say in response to a demand for increased wages: “I’m not listening to no stinkin’ wage increases!” He resumed his normal voice: “Does that sound like good faith? No.” Then Stieff showed us the proper alternative: “I’m not inclined to agree to that proposal at this time.” He observed. “Does that sound like good faith? Yes, but I’m saying the same thing I did before.” The lesson? “You can say no to anything.”

In Europe, companies can't refuse to come to the table. They have to work things out. In the US, they have to come to the table, but there's no push to really settle anything. In the end, workers work without contracts, are fired, replaced and in cases like those at Smithfield are intimidated with potential deportation (see my smithfield pieces).

I hope Anne listens to her workers and figures out that unionizing isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's an opportunity to listen to her workers and figure out how the company and its workforce can work better together. In the end, we are all in it together, it's time for American companies to figure out how to partner with their workers. we aren't adversaries, we're allies and partners.

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