Union busting is as old as trade unions themselves. Ever since workers started to form their own organisations back in the 18th century to fight for decent working conditions, employers have tried to break them. In the old days workers would be beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for participating in trade union activities. Better working conditions meant less profits for the boss, and a harsh hand was dealt to keep the rich ruling minority firmly in charge.
Nowadays, in developed countries like Britain and the USA, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this kind of oppression towards working people had become a thing of the past. After all, we live in a democracy. But the case studies below show quite the contrary. Although techniques have changed far from becoming a thing of the past, union busting has swelled to become a multi-million dollar industry.
After the 1935 US National Labor Relations Act established the right to join a union and bargain collectively, companies seeking to operate union free could no longer use the bare-knuckle tactics of old. They needed more subtle and sophisticated tactics to fight the trade unions. What they needed were private expert companies that they could hire to do their dirty work for them, companies specialising in union avoidance services. Until the 1970s, however, professional union avoidance consultants were small in number and were not yet part of mainstream industrial relations. Most employers kept quiet about the idea of hiring consultants. One consultant stated that employers “used to sneak to seminars about keeping your plant non-union. They were as nervous as whores in a church! The posture of major company managers was, ‘Let’s not make the union mad at us during their organising drive or they’ll take it out at the bargaining table.”
That mindset changed dramatically in the 1970s and ’80s, a period of significant expansion for the union avoidance industry, when most employers shed their inhibitions about recruiting union busting consultants. The size of the consultant industry increased tenfold during the 1970s, as employers sought out firms that could help them defeat trade union formation and expansion. Union busting consultants organised thousands of anti-union campaigns, targeting areas of growing importance to unions like healthcare, and white-collar employees. Today, the monopolisation of big business has led to giant companies accumulating enormous profits, and with them, the resource for union busting has grown to unprecedented proportions.
Genesis of Union Busting
The Logan Report, produced earlier this year by the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), reveals some startling statistics. It is estimated that companies in the USA alone are spending a whopping $4 billion each year on union busting! If you take into account that this money is directed mainly at a small number of workers actively engaged in struggle at any one time, that works out at thousands of dollars per worker. Add to that a staggering 25,000 lawyers that are apparently committed to preventing trade unions developing across the USA, and you have what has been described as a genesis for union busting policy.
The Burke Group (TBG), based in California, is one of the worlds’ biggest union busting consultants. It advertises itself as a ‘management consulting firm specialising in union avoidance’. TBG has conducted over 800 union busting campaigns since its establishment in 1981, with clients such as Coca-Cola, Mazda, General Electric, Heinz, DuPont, and Lockheed Martin, with whom they boast a 95% success rate!
The tactic used by union busters like TBG is to get into the workplace and convince the workforce against voting in favour of union representation, or recognition. As trade unions benefit workers’ interests, the only way to achieve this is to lie. Workers are given company leaflets warning that if they join the union they are likely to be permanently on strike. They mislead workers into believing that the union will start harassing them in their homes, risk their job security, and cause them a loss of earnings and benefits. In other words they convince workers into believing exactly the opposite of what trade unions actually offer.
One textbook example of TBG’s union busting campaigns was for the Chinese Daily News (CDN), the largest Chinese language newspaper in North America. In October 2000, 152 mostly Taiwanese workers started a trade union organising campaign after management announced plans to cut pay, and force employees to sign a statement that they could be fired at any time. Within a month, 95 percent of the employees had signed union authorisation cards. In response, CDN hired TBG who immediately started an aggressive anti-union campaign. In March 2001, the workers stood solid and voted again for union recognition. The CDN management told the workers that it was prepared to spend $1 million on defeating the union. True to its word, by September 2005, after an intense five-year anti-union campaign, the union lost a rerun ballot. The head of the Newspapers Guild subsequently described the events as the “fiercest anti-union campaign I have ever been involved in.”
But isn’t this against the law I hear you ask? The simple answer is yes! The trouble is that legislation is so weak that it’s cheaper for the company to pay out damages to individual workers in court, than to give in to the trade unions. In 2007, the US Court of Appeals awarded CDN employees $2.5 million for numerous labour law violations committed by the company, but they will probably never gain union recognition.
Organisations like TBG have been so successful that, despite some 60 million Americans saying that they would like to join a trade union, national membership currently stands at only 7.5 percent of the US private sector workforce.
Bringing It Back Home
And if you thought this kind of thing could never happen here, think again! The Burke Group has been accused of bringing union busting tactics to Britain. In fact, a 2008 survey of trade union organising campaigns in Britain found that employers used anti-union consultants in about one fifth of the cases. TBG has attracted large companies operating here in Britain to its sinister services, including T-Mobile, Amazon.co.uk, Virgin Atlantic, Calor Gas, FlyBe, Cable & Wireless, and Kettle Chips. Many of TBG’s anti-union campaigns have had a devastating impact.
In the case of T-Mobile, George Rankin, an organising officer from the Communication Workers Union (CWU), has described some of the tactics that were used. He said that TBG sent a 7-minute video to the homes of five hundred and fifty T-Mobile workers in order to convince them against voting in favour of recognition of the CWU. TBG used scare tactics like those listed above. Workers were moved away from trade union influence by outsourcing their jobs to private companies. Trade union members were also intimidated and harassed. The union lost the vote for recognition by two to one. It’s a similar story with Cable & Wireless, and with Kettle Chips. The Graphical Print and Media Union involved in the Amazon case stated that “we had never faced this level of serious professional resistance before”, after the union also lost the vote for recognition.
But the FlyBe case is most revealing. In 2006, Europe’s largest regional low-cost carrier hired TBG when 400 cabin crew tried to join the Transport & General Union. However, midway through TBG’s union busting campaign, the union (now called Unite) persuaded FlyBe to drop TBG, and subsequently a huge shift by the workers in favour of union representation led to an election landslide, with 94% of the workers voting in favor of unionisation in an 89% turnout.
What does all this show? It shows that if the workers are left to organise they choose the trade unions. It shows that the only way for companies to avoid trade unions is to lie, to cheat, to manipulate, and to attack. It shows that the argument about capitalist society being governed by the natural forces of market trading is utter nonsense. Capitalist society is, in part, maintained by employers who squander billions of dollars to ensure that the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. These battles between trade unions and employers effectively mark out the boundary between the workers, and the business owners in society. It is a boundary between two classes. One side is fighting for decent working and living conditions, and the other side fighting to preserve exploitation and maintain its profits. For one side to gain the other must loose. True we live in a democracy, but it’s a parliamentary democracy, where legislation favours the interests of big business owners, not working people. The enormous resources currently being poured into blocking the unions in the workplace serves to exacerbate this problem. It means the discontent of the exploited workforce is trapped beneath the surface of society and will fester until it can find an avenue of expression.
The two trade union federations in the USA and Britain, the AFL-CIO and the TUC, have signed a joint agreement to work together to eliminate the intimidation of workers who want to improve the quality of their families’ lives by joining or forming a trade union. The two union federations agreed to share information about the activity of union busting firms, to develop a shared database of union busting activity, and create “Busting the Union-Busters” training materials. Both will jointly lobby governments and relevant international bodies to restrict the activities of the union busters. But, the only way to beat union busting once and for all is to unite the workforce, and join and organise in our trade unions, our own class organisations. A collective problem requires a collective solution. Ultimately we must build a new society based on the needs of the majority, not the needs of the rich minority. These are the foundations of a workers’ democracy, of a socialist society.
This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by William Roche