Employers loudly proclaim that their workforces are not interested in belonging to unions, speaking for them by claiming that they are satisfied with their unorganized status. This, even though poll after poll shows that workers across all demographic groups and industries indicate wide support for unions. They further express in large majorities a willingness to join a union if that were possible. What stops these workers from organizing is the fact that employers will — and do — resist with every legal and illegal means when workers try to exercise their right to organize. This single fact is the root answer why union membership continues to drop, why union bargaining clout continues to erode, and why the overall condition of the working class is dire and worsening by the day.
One of the little-known facts of life in the U.S. is that virtually every new union that is organized today faces some degree of fanatical — and frequently illegal — employer resistance. Every union member who has been through the initial struggle to win a union in their workplace has lived through this. Bosses hit back as soon as they figure out that the workers are even talking about organizing. Their stream of lies, threats and intimidation may be subtle, but they are far more likely to launch an all-out counterattack against the union and against anyone suspected of supporting the union. For an example, this recent article in Jacobin exposes the rampant union busting currently being unleashed against the Starbucks union movement.
The unorganized workplace is a dictatorship. As the 67th UE National Convention declared 20 years ago in 2002, “The Bill of Rights, which provides the constitutional basis for many of our basic freedoms, has never applied to working people in the workplace … where employers are empowered to maintain near absolute control. … No significant progress has been made on the labor rights front in decades, and today employers brazenly violate the law and victimize working people who dare to challenge their complete control.”
While there are some employers who might exhibit a reluctant tolerance for the right of their workforces to join a union, the vast majority have no such respect. The bosses have skillfully refined their anti-union attacks from the days of brute force and violence to the overwhelming psychological terrorism and surveillance warfare of today. But the results are the same.
In 1937, a young James Matles — soon to become the founding UE Director of Organization — testified before the LaFollette Congressional Committee investigating outrageous union-busting by employers. Like today, countless union organizing campaigns were being wiped out by illegal corporate lawbreaking using every imaginable means. An entire book, “The Labor Spy Racket,” detailed some of the findings of the LaFollette Committee as it exposed the pervasive employer anti-unionism of that era.
Right to Organize Smashed — Nothing New
The problem in 1937, as it remains now in 2022, is that employer anti-union conduct is almost entirely concealed, plotted and launched in secret, with the destruction visited on the union organizing efforts of unorganized workers almost never revealed. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the U.S. agency tasked with enforcing the watered-down laws that protect workers, is overwhelmed in nearly every case by the army of high-priced lawyers employed by bosses to clog the process with objections, delays, appeals, you name it. Bosses also employ an army of highly paid union-busting consultants. Their sole mission when brought in is to spy on, derail and then obliterate the union organizing underway. The legal rights that workers have to organize — on paper at least — are ignored and violated in a thousand ways.
Employer Human Resource (HR) departments long ago morphed into all-out anti-union mode, with most HR staffers now having been trained in all the anti-union ideologies and techniques as an unquestioned policy. In organizing drives today, it is commonplace for workers to be surveilled, threatened, then forced to attend individual and group “captive audience” meetings where the employer has total control of the meeting, the agenda, and the workers. Threats are a dime a dozen and firings likewise. Once the boss is aware that the workers are trying to organize the sole mission at that point is to kill the union — by practically any means necessary. Any notion that the workers might have the basic right to join a union — a right recognized worldwide — is smothered. Killed, they hope, before it can grow.
Forty and fifty years ago, it was customary for the NLRB to handle upwards of 7,000 to 8,000 union elections per year, involving hundreds of thousands of workers. In recent years that number has shrunk to something like 1,000 to 1,400 different union elections conducted annually by the NLRB, with the union on the ballot winning a small majority of the elections. The overall size of the individual voting units also continues to shrink. The low abyss of the union election count was reached in 2021, when fewer than 1,000 union elections were held. The pandemic accounted for about a one third drop in elections from 2019, while the long-term effect of rampant employer lawlessness and union busting accounts for the precipitous historical decline.
Since statistics are not kept for the thousands and thousands of union organizing efforts that do not end in an NLRB election, the full extent of the union busting is not really known. Anyone familiar with union organizing will know that only a tiny slice of the union organizing efforts get as far as an election. The all-too-common end point for the vast majority of union organizing campaigns is an inglorious end at the hands of the boss’s counterattack. Workers are illegally fired in no fewer than 40 percent of all drives, and using the full array of a few carrots and many sticks, employers frequently shut down union organizing long before any election can be held.
Confessions of a Union-Buster
Chris Townsend (left) and Marty Levitt at a public meeting during UE drive to organize GE plastics in Parkersburg, WV, 1991.
One of the few credible books that exposes the so-called “union avoidance” industry is Marty Levitt’s Confessions of a Union Buster, first published in 1993, in which he told his own story as an anti-union consultant in the 1970s and 1980s. Levitt’s book has been republished and remains one of the only contemporary works covering this dirty business from the inside.
Any worker having survived the employer anti-union counterattack will identify with Levitt’s story and simple formula. The bottom line as laid out by Levitt is that the anti-union campaign of the employer does not have to look impressive; it does not have to make logical sense; it doesn’t have to fit together, be ethical, be truthful, or even be legal. It just has to be relentless — and it has to win. The union must be stopped at any cost. (Watch Levitt explain the union busting formula in a short video at https://youtu.be/a-0gxca-VxM.)
The Astounding Reid Case
One union-busting case that has never received the exposure that it deserves is the 1990 and 1991 case of Reid Plastics, then located in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania. When the workers contacted UE to organize, an employer storm descended on them. In short order, Reid management went into action to crush the incipient drive. A total of 44 out of 59 UE supporters were fired using every conceivable excuse. The drive was effectively liquidated, and all the union and the workers could do was to pursue the slow-as-molasses NLRB process to try to prove the firings were in retaliation for joining the union and therefore illegal. Unions customarily pursue NLRB charges when employers break the law but unless their evidence is incontrovertible, smoking-gun in nature, or unless the employer tells the truth about their lawbreaking, it is unlikely that justice will ever be won.
In the Reid company case, astonishingly, the latter transpired, when one of the employer’s local managers was subpoenaed by the union to testify at the NLRB proceedings. And he told the truth. He detailed the entire illegal campaign against the UE, the firings of union supporters labeled as “layoffs” included. The confession revealed that the premeditated illegal actions were part of the company’s refusal to accept the right of their workers to organize. It was all just a business decision after they had consulted with their lawyers and their union buster specialist. The confessing company manager was promptly fired for his honesty, and so egregious were the labor law violations that the NLRB ordered the company to recognize and bargain with the union. Sadly, that Reid case was likely the only case in which the truth was exposed that year. Maybe that decade. Maybe since then, over 30 years now. How many employers have done what Reid did, but never been exposed by the guilty conscience of a lower-level manager? I would say tens of thousands.
Union Busting Leads to Mass Impoverishment
The epidemic of unchecked union busting and the violations of the basic human rights of several hundred million U.S. workers has brought us to the current moment. Working people now toil for less than what they did more than 40 years ago. Simple benefits such as retirement pensions and employer-paid health care coverage have been cancelled by greedy employers. Overall working conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that many millions of workers have withdrawn from the official workforce. The systematic destruction of the labor movement and the reduction of any ability to push back against this degraded employer conduct has delivered us to the current point of mass impoverishment.
Staunch union supporter Senator Bernie Sanders revealed the scope of the catastrophe of this crisis in his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Close observers might recall Sanders reporting the outrageous fact that in 2016, half of the working class was unable to scrape up even $500 for any kind of emergency. By his 2020 campaign, he was forced to amend this to the fact that just four years later half of the working people were unable to scavenge even $400.
Most Politicians on Sidelines
Looking at the elected political leadership of today — at all levels, national, state, and local — we can safely say that NONE of them, not one, would accept for their own election conditions what unorganized workers are forced to endure in NLRB elections. Would any elected leader accept it when their opposition is legally able to press-gang the voters into meetings where they are paid, and where the simple act of getting up and leaving might get them fired? Elections where absolutely no equal time is allowed? Of course not. One cannot speak of NLRB elections as “democratic” or “fair” in any sense of the word. Despite this, workers have few other means to force employers to deal with their organizing efforts. With Republicans hell-bent on union liquidation and many Democrats fearful of expressing pro-union views, the outlook is not promising.
Labor’s Mission and Challenge
Several far flung organizing campaigns are now burgeoning and offer hope that working people will move en masse and challenge the corporate dictatorship. The enormous win at Amazon earlier this year, the ever-expanding Starbucks union movement, and continued growth of organizing among young workers in retail, restaurants, higher education, high tech and among non-profit employers are encouraging. The new organizing activity underway today by young workers is remarkable in several ways, and is acting as a potent challenge to employers as well as the labor establishment. The employer response will be to multiply their efforts to destroy the incipient organizing waves. The only course of action for those of us in the labor movement who understand the significance and importance of union organizing must be joining the fray, somewhere, anywhere. The time is now for labor to break out of the encirclement forced on us by Corporate America. It’s now, or maybe never. Follow the lead of the young workers and confront the workplace dictatorship — organize!
Two Additional Resources to Learn More About Union Busting
Former union leader and U.S. Department of Labor staffer John Lund has written a technical guidebook on how to track down union busters and the companies who pay them big bucks to smash union drives. I recommend it to anyone wanting to get to the bottom of specific cases. See: https://www.laborsbookstore.com/collections/new-books/products/pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain-getting-information-about-persuader-consultants-and-the-employers-who-hire-them.
Union busters operate almost totally in secret, and it is unheard of to find one come forward and speak freely about what they really do. This is what makes a figure like Marty Levitt so rare. And it is even more rare for a union buster — or a defender of this conduct — to agree to debate someone from the labor movement. I was able to take a stab at debating a union buster in September of 2012 when no other union leader or representative in Washington, DC could be found to confront Mallory Factor. Now forgotten, Factor had written a book, Shadow Bosses, where he made the absurd claim that public-sector unions were wrecking the country and therefore must be liquidated. The book was a best-seller, being bought in huge quantities by business interests for free distribution to every member of the U.S Congress and Senate, and to several hundred thousand elected officials at the state and local level. Watch the debate at https://cdn.cato.org/archive-2012/cbf-09-12-12.mp4.