Taking the fight to the union busters

This week, In These Times published a fascinating piece on the ugly inner workings of the union busting industry.  Assuming the identity of a small New York City business owner, Art Levine went undercover to an anti-union seminar held by Jackson Lewis, an infamous law firm which helps other companies bust unions.

Levine's piece gives us a good look at the early stages of union-busting: a hush-hush seminar which starts out by frightening business owners and managers about the alleged dangers of unionization, and follows up with some basic anti-union legal advice.  There's no surprise there; indeed, labor law is replete with loopholes which can be exploited to thwart unionization.

What is surprising is the expense and difficulty which is imposed on the union-buster's client - i.e., the manager or business owner who wishes to avoid unionization.  After all, to go to the seminar, Levine had to chip in travel expenses plus a $1,500 entrance fee, as well as two solid days of time.  That amounts to a pretty serious cash outlay.  What's more, participating in the seminar and doing business with Jackson Lewis don't sound like remotely pleasant activities.  The seminar and follow-up free half-hour phone consultation which Levine describes both sound like fairly high-pressure ordeals meant to persuade participants to pay the firm exorbitant fees to solve what may be an imaginary problem.  The Jackson Lewis attorneys sound like textbook cases of predatory salespeople.

Because the union-busting industry is so replete with high costs, legal risks, and slimy sales seminars, being the client of a union-busting firm is unlikely to be a pleasant experience; there's a good incentive for employers not to bother.  However, there is simply no competition to the union-busting industry.  Unions organize workers; labor lawyers help unions win cases before the NLRB and the courts; and no one - as far as I can tell - works to advise employers on the benefits of unionization, and the best way to work together with a union.  Why not?  Why can't someone take the fight to the union-busters, and beat them at their own game?

The core of the union-busting business is a sales pitch that convinces employers that they do not want to see their workers organized, and legal and communications expertise that shows employers how to bust a union.  Union-busters frighten their clients with tales of companies allegedly run into the ground by union greed, and argue that employers shouldn't have to tolerate a "third party" or outside agent in the workplace.

However, unionization is frequently a net benefit for an employer.  Unionization could be a way to attract a higher caliber of workers, increase productivity, decrease employee turnover, improve the community spirit in the workplace, and otherwise improve workplace conditions and the company's overall health.  Indeed, some unions, like SEIU and the Teamsters, have developed friendly and symbiotic relationships with the companies whose workers they represent, like Kaiser Permanente and UPS, respectively.

Of course, union-busters do not discuss this aspect of unionization with their clients.  Indeed, no one really tries to present this case to managers and business owners.  While unions and labor-friendly organizations like American Rights at Work go to great lengths to publicize the ugly face of union-busting, the benefits of unionization to workers, and the ways that unionization can improve the health of a company, few organizations attempt to target people who might be tempted to engage in union-busting specifically.  As a result, managers and business owners are unlikely to get a positive picture of unionization, and are more likely to engage in union-busting.

I ran a little experiment this weekend with Google, and tried to put myself into the shoes of a business owner who might be interested in union avoidance.  I searched for keywords like "union avoidance", "union free", "union vote no", "Jackson Lewis" and "The Burke Group" (the last two are prominent union-busting firms), and paid attention to the ads which popped up on the right.  While there were plenty of ads for union-busting firms and anti-union websites like www.unionfreeamerica.com, www.proudtobeunionfree.com, and so on, there wasn't a single ad trying to make the opposite case, that unionization could be helpful to someone running a business.

I think there is a real opportunity here for a liberal entrepreneur, to start a union cooperation firm.  Accoding to The Union Avoidance Industry in the United States (PDF), union-busters are paid anywhere between tens of thousands, and several millions of dollars to help run an anti-union campaign.  An entrepreneur who can figure out how to encourage employers not to hire a union-buster, and who can help an employer work productively and cooperatively with a union, could earn a lot of money while strengthening the labor movement considerably.  Moreover, such an entrepreneur could become a neutral third party to an organizing or contracting campaign, helping guide the employer through the experience without leaving bad feelings among the workers.

Undoubtedly, this is a tall order, but I think a sufficiently crafty labor-friendly entrepreneur could turn this idea into a very lucrative business, and could help turn back the anti-union tide.  I'd love to hear your thoughts - is this an absolutely nutty idea, or one worth kicking around and eventually launching?

Tags: labor movement, liberal entrepreneurship, union busting (all tags)



Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

I think this is a wonderful idea.  There are so many points to be made about a unionized work environment...this really has potential.

I think we as bloggers could get a collection of progressive think tanks together on this.  The Economic Policy Institute, for one, would be a good start.  I'm not well versed on some of the other left of center union based think tanks but I'm sure they're out there.

How would one go about forming this firm?  Considering I'm graduating college in t-minus 8 months, I'd certainly be interested in this type of project.

by circlesnshadows 2007-09-30 04:58PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

Well, as a first step, I would try to dip my toes in the water.  Say, by creating a website which discusses why unionization is good for business, and advertising it on Google ads.  That would be a good, fairly cheap way to attract potential clients.  

However, since you've got to offer a service at the end of the day, I would guess there'd have to be some actual legal or HR experts on board, who could give good, solid advice on how to work together with a union in a way that benefits a company.  There are some really good case studies available; I guess applying lessons from those cases would be the initial offering, and then you'd expand out from there.  Does that make sense?

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-30 05:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

Absolutely.  I intend to pursue law school and focus on labor law down the line but I was planning to take a year (or several) off and work in the political/think tank/research sector.  This definitely strikes my fancy and I may pursue this idea (in which case not only will I credit you but I'd also want to consult with you at different points in time).

The main problem I foresee is the issue of providing services.  I don't have much of an expertise in applicable labor disputes or human resources, so I'm not sure if I'd be the best person to really lead this type of firm.  For this idea to work, you'd need a labor law or two on retainer as well as some individuals with experience in the unionizing sector (organizers, perhaps) and even someone with conflict resolution/arbitration experience.  So one would need to recruit several people for this to work.

by circlesnshadows 2007-09-30 05:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

+ you'd need a good pr guy on board because if this worked at all there would be so much room for earned media.

I'd love to be a part of something like this.  Such a service would be of most use in the right-to-work south which I am in the heart of.

by cottonmouthblog 2007-09-30 06:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

Could we get some sort of focus group together on this and talk about how to do create this, what we could offer, initial funding, and other bureaucratic plans?  I certainly couldn't start this on my own but I have a decent amount of organizational experience as well as a research/labor background and I could do a lot of work (but not nearly all of it) for this type of firm.  What do you and others think of putting together a focus group on this with other bloggers?

by circlesnshadows 2007-09-30 06:41PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

Well, I can post a follow-up next Friday afternoon, and see if that garners further interest.  American Rights at Work appears to be one of the leading sources for information on union-busting generally, so they seem like a good place to start.  I'm ashamed to admit I haven't yet fully read through their excellent resource center, but I can try to do that and see if there's other useful information to be had.

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-30 07:44PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters

I'm still in school and will be heading off to graduate school pretty soon after I finish at Southern Miss, so that kind of rules me out.

by cottonmouthblog 2007-09-30 08:13PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters
Could this work? First I think you would need to have active organizing drives from labor, employers that actually care about their employees, and maybe a health care crisis in America that could amalgamate business and labor.
Hey wait a minute... that is what we have.  
by loudpedal 2007-10-03 06:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Taking the fight to the union busters
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by davidmaster77 2007-11-04 08:56PM | 0 recs


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