By Gregory Palast for The Observer UK
On February 10 this year, Kathy Saumier allegedly pulled down the trousers of two of her male bosses and made disparaging remarks about their penises. For that, Landis Plastics sacked her. Kathy’s children, ages 8 and 13, heard the accusations against their mother on the radio news because her employer had issued a statement to the press.
This May, after reviewing evidence that the sex harassment incidents were fabrications top to bottom, US judges ordered the company to re-hire her. Why would Kathy’s employer have sought to destroy her name and livelihood? Maybe it had to do with her signing up a majority of her 147 co-workers at Landis as members of the United Steelworkers union and petitioning the government to hold a recognition election. Employees had good reason to join a union. Seventy-seven percent of Landis workers were injured on the job, including six women who had fingers amputated in unguarded machinery.
But this isn’t about body parts. This is about the death of America’s trade unions. For the first time in 100 years, union membership has dropped below 10% of the private workforce. Shut-downs of General Motor and United Parcel Service tell us labor’s corpse refuses to lie down in its grave. Nevertheless, hidden behind the hoopla of these rare union victories are statistics which indicate the unions’ awareness of their own terminal weakness. In all the USA, there were only 29 major strikes last year, the lowest ever. By contrast, in the three decades before the Age of Reagan, unions had the power to call an average of 303 major walk-outs each year.
Nineteen ninety-seven should have been a no-lose year for US trade unions. The labor market was tight and working people gained an appealing spokesman, John Sweeney, new President of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney is a left-winger whose two-fisted defense of the nation=s lowest-paid workers has won the respect of an American public long used to dismissing union leaders as out-of-touch fat cats. To rebuild membership, Sweeney increased unions’ recruitment funds by one-thousand percent.
But he failed. Last year US unions bled out another 157,000 members.
America’s unions are crushed. For the cause, don’t look to hifalutin theories about globalization or the changing employment marketplace. US unions were destroyed by the very labor laws, crafted in the 1930s, originally meant to help them.
For 60 years, American law guaranteed workers the right to choose a union in free and fair workplace elections. That’s the promise. The reality is that 32% of America’s companies contesting recognition sack union activists – then merrily pay the penalties for violating the law. Last year, the National Labor Relations Board formally charged corporations with committing Aunfair labor practices in TWELVE THOUSAND cases.
Typical is the story of Ed Armstrong, a New Orleans pipe fitter. After speaking out for a union at the Avondale Shipyard, the company assigned him to sit for weeks in a tiny row boat in the Mississippi River. They told him to fish out logs. When Armstrong refused to quit, Avondale, a major defense contractor, sacked him and twenty-eight other union supporters. This February, after four years of litigation, the Labor Board ordered all re-instated. Meanwhile, the unions’ drive for a contract withered and died.
Behind this labor-law crime wave is a new, made-in-America industry: management labor-relations consulting firms. The AFL-CIO calls them Aunion busters. Most are specialized law firms who often charge upwards of one million dollars for successfully defeating union recognition elections. They are expert at using the system for worker protection against itself to stall, choke and bankrupt union campaigns.
One union organizer told me, “surprising we win any elections at all.” They usually don’t. Sixty-one percent of workers in recognition elections in the last seven years have voted against unions – despite the fact that unions request elections only if they have a solid majority of a shop’s workforce already on record in favor of unionizing. Kate Bronfenbrenner, professor of Labor Studies at Cornell University, says unions lose because the months between the government’s scheduling an election and the vote have become periods of intense intimidation of captive employees. Her study for the 3-nation NAFTA board reported that 62% of US industrial companies threaten to move or shut operations when faced with union votes. Such threats are illegal, but another violation simply affords another opportunity for law firm consultants to delay the election while the Labor Board investigates.
For Britain’s unions, this is a cautionary tale. New Labour’s White Paper, Fairness in the Workplace, issued in May, proposes adopting a union recognition election system which mimics US law. UK unions cheer the new proposals in hopes that a new legal structure will help them recover from the devastation of the Thatcher years.
But US-style recognition elections are a leaky life-boat. Ask Kathy Saumier, now back at Landis Plastics. Ultimately, the government fined Landis for 63 Aegregious safety violations and charged the company with 71 unfair labor practices. But Landis continues to stall a recognition vote, and, says Kathy, How can I win when women come to me crying, scared for their jobs? Of the 200 workers who signed up for the union over the past two years, only 15 remain. She says, “I won’t let them break me.” But, concludes one anonymous union official, US labor law means, “we win all the battles, but they have already won the war.”
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Gregory Palast’s column “Inside Corporate America” appears fortnightly in the Observer’s Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press Association – 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society – 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).