Taking the fight to the union busters
by Shai Sachs, Sun Sep 30, 2007 at 04:18:17 PM EDT
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?