17. Union Do’s: Smart Solidarity

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: THE NATION, Date: April 8, 1996, Title “Union Do’s: Smart Solidarity,” Author: Eyal Press

SSU Censored Researchers: Aldo Della-Maggiora Stacey Merrick

Fifteen years after Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, strikes in America have dipped to a fifty-year low, a mere one-eighth the level of two decades ago. In response to this decline, labor has been fighting back through a strategy known as a ‘corporate campaign.”

The concept behind the “corporation campaign” involves “partnering” with other activist groups (environmental, consumer, etc.) and hitting powerful and highly diversified companies on all fronts. Such a coalition works by investigating the company being struck (or perhaps its parent company and/or its other subsidiaries), scrutinizing environmental and investment records, organizing consumer boycotts, submitting shareholder resolutions, complaining to regulatory agencies—and generally doing whatever it takes to pressure management into a fair settlement. As a result of some successes through the “corporate campaign” strategy, business is striking back by suing labor unions under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act—a statute originally created to fight organized crime.

In one representative case, the United Steelworkers local 9121 began a “corporate campaign” against Bayou Steel and RSR. This “corporate campaign” began due to Bayou Steel’s proposed contract that gave no pay raise and allowed any union job to be contracted out. The Steelworkers union, with the help of environmental consultants and community groups, documented numerous environmental and worker safety violations at both RSR and Bayouin fact, generating information that has been useful to activists seeking to block RSR from opening new factories. As a result, the Steelworkers are being sued by both RSR and Bayou under RICO.

Additionally, business leaders are now lobbying Congress to legally ban such “corporate campaign” strategies. In response, workers claim that management is simply trying to ban their most successful recent innovation—simply because it’s proven to be occasionally successful. Indeed, they counter, the strategy is based on the First Amendment and the free flow of truthful information.

And with laws already on the books’ allowing temporary and permanent replacement workers, and with threats of downsizing and corporate flight further casting shadows over labor, business leaders are now working with Congress to alter the rules.

COMMENTS: Writer Eyal Press says he heard that his article, “Union Do’s: Smart Solidarity,” was picked up by an NPR stringer, but he has not heard the program. To the best of his knowledge, the issue received no coverage in the mass media. “As far as newsweeklies and major papers, the closest thing I saw was a one-page article in Business Week on the general subject of corporate campaigns,” says Press. “But the story of the Steelworkers battle against Bayou Steel and the RSR corporation was not told in any detail.”

Press believes media exposure of this story would benefit the general public by educating. “First, I think the story illustrates what can be achieved when labor unions work together with environmentalists and community activists (and vice-versa). The stereotype of the labor movement, which is in part justified, is that it is narrowly focused and single-issue-oriented (’we look out for ours…’). This story challenges that stereotype. The workers involved in this struggle learned a lot about environmental issues (such as the dangers of lead), and also discovered that it can be in their interest to think about how industry affects communities, school children, etc. On the flip side, I think the story illustrates to ordinary citizens how they can work with unions to protect their communities from environmentally destructive and/or irresponsible companies. Finally, I think the story shed light on an important tool—corporate campaigns—which big business is quietly hoping to eliminate.

“The clear beneficiaries [of the lack of media coverage] are the corporations who wish to ban corporate campaigns for exactly the reasons outlined in the article. Corporate campaigns, like recent consumer campaigns waged against The Gap and Nike, can be a big headache for companies. So they’re trying to impose all kinds of restrictions on them, which in effect amount to an effort to restrict the free speech rights of labor unions.

“The gratifying feedback I did receive on the article came from labor and environmental activists who want to build bridges between these movements,” says Press. “Richard Yeselson of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department says that friends and allies of his discussed the article and passed it around.”

With regard to an update on the story, Press says, “Yeselson and others expect that Republicans in Congress will renew their efforts to ban corporate campaigns this year. Meanwhile, Bayou Steel and the union reached a settle-ment, but the company (and also RSR) maintains its lawsuit against the union.”