5. The Effort to Make Unions Disappear

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Z Magazine, September 20, 2002
Title: “Employers Attack: Unions Blink”
Author: Lee Sustar

War Times, Oct/Nov 2002
Title: “Unions Face National Insecurity”
Author: David Bacon

The Progressive, February 2003
Title: “Brazen Bosses”
Author: Anne-Marie Cusac

The American Prospect, March 2003
Title: “Class Warfare, Bush-Style”
Author: Robert L. Borosage

Faculty Evaluators: Fred Fletcher, Diana Grant Ph.D., Francisco Vazquez Ph.D.,
Laurie Dawson Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Rebecca Grant, Jessie Esquivel, Sarah Zisman

For more than a quarter century, big business has engaged in a successful campaign of weakening unions, redistributing income away from the working class, and writing business-friendly rules for the global economy. Yet the current political climate makes the last 25 years look like a golden era for workers rights. Called the “most pro-corporate president in history,” George W. Bush has been, particularly since 9-11, engaged in a relentless, yet largely covert, effort to undermine labor unions and worker protections.

In March 2001, Bush told 10,000 workers of Northwest Airlines that they could not strike for 80 days. The President also told United Airlines strikers that unless they agreed to further concessions the administration would refuse the $1.8 billion that the airline needed to avoid bankruptcy. After 9-11, Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act forcing workers of the Pacific Maritime Association to return to work.

Immigrant workers have suffered the most from the “war on unions.” Prior to 9-11, immigrant workers began receiving better wages and working conditions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) negotiated a new contract for baggage screeners raising their pay from minimum wage to $10 an hour. Also, the AFL-CIO called for the repeal of the law that makes it illegal for undocumented workers to work in the U.S. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was also beginning to reduce the number of raids it carried out to find undocumented workers.

In the wake of 9-11, the Bush administration used the specter of national security to justify its attack on public-sector unions, and to stall passage of the homeland security bill until receiving the right to exempt the 180,000 employees of the new department of most civil-service protections. Congress passed legislation that created the Transportation Security Authority (TSA), which oversees baggage screeners at airports and requires all baggage screeners to be federal government employees. But since the TSA is part of the Homeland Security Department, employees may not form or join a union. Congressional legislation also allows Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to suspend civil service regulations, allow discrimination, abolish whistleblower protections, and exempt the department from Freedom of Information Act regulations. The House has passed legislation that also exempts the Homeland Security Department from Title 5 of the Civil Service Act, which protects the collective bargaining rights of federal employees.

After 9-11, to ensure that screeners were American citizens, the INS launched Operation Tarmac. Operation Tarmac began by picking up immigrant workers who had access to airplanes. But as time moved on, the Operation began cracking down on immigrant workers in all sections of airports, even foodservice. In one instance, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union claims that immigrant workers were called to an employee meeting where they were arrested by INS agents.

In December of 2002, the Labor Department issued new reporting and itemization regulations for unions-an administrative nightmare that will cost unions millions of dollars. Having asked the new Congress to pass strict penalties for unions that fail to meet reporting deadlines, the Bush budget increased spending for auditing, investigating and punishing union violations. At the same time, the budget cut money for enforcing workplace health and safety laws, and for investigating corporate violations of worker protections. In his first two years in office, Bush has already blocked more strikes than any president in history.

As was reported in the mainstream press, the Bush administration has announced plans to accelerate the process of contracting out federal work to private companies, putting the jobs of nearly 850,000 federal employees at risk. This invites anti-union, low-wage contractors to compete for what are now, in most cases, decent-paying, union jobs with good benefits. But what went unreported is that this is proving to embolden conservative governors who are seeking wholesale privatization and de-unionization of state and local workforces as well.

UPDATE BY ANNE-MARIE CUSAC: It is hard to overstate the importance of this story. The near loss of the right to organize has the potential to affect every single worker in the country, though it most drastically affects poor and working-class people. As the right to organize disappears, so, too, do other rights: the right to health care, livable wages, and leisure time.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this story is the blatant mistreatment of those workers who are brave enough to attempt to bring unions into their places of work. The outright physical abuse, the propensity to fire organizers, the threats to lay off or cut benefits to any who vote for the union – all of these are effective strategies that contribute to the sinking rates of union membership in the United States. The government has little power to stop employers from using such tactics, and some employers evidently feel that it pays to break the law. Millions of workers want a union and do not have one. Less than 10 percent of the private sector is now unionized, down from a high of 36 percent in the early 1950s.

Since my piece appeared in The Progressive, the NLRB has issued more complaints showing that companies routinely attempt to suppress unions.

In late April, The Washington Post reported, President Bush took advantage of a congressional recess to avoid Senate oversight in his appointments of two more officials to positions connected with the NLRB.

Bush chose Peter Eide to serve as the general counsel at the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Eide is now in charge of enforcing labor laws that apply to federal employees. Formerly, Eide directed labor law policy at the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Bush also appointed Neil Anthony Gordon McPhie to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which, among other obligations, oversees personnel and disciplinary procedures that government agencies take against workers.

More information on particular companies that fire or otherwise mistreat workers who are trying to bring in unions is available on the National Labor Relations Board web site: http://www.nlrb.gov/. Two experts on these issues, Kate Bronfenbrenner and Lance Compa, are both associated with Cornell University and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/. Bronfenbrenner is the author of several excellent books, and Compa’s 2000 report on union organizing and human rights issues in the United States is available on the Human Rights Watch web site: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/uslabor/. Anyone interested in these issues is also welcome to contact me at The Progressive: (608) 257-4626.

UPDATE BY LEE SUSTAR: It’s revealing that the story of a labor movement with more than 13 million members can be censored with relative ease. The dominant media view in recent years has been that unions are artifacts of an earlier era and are simply no longer relevant in the “new” information economy. Full-time labor beat reporters, once fixtures in big-city newsrooms, virtually disappeared years ago.

Since the onset of economic crisis, however, some journalists have resurrected an older media stereotype: that of Big Labor, selfishly protecting its “special” interests at the expense of the greater economic good. Developments since the publication of “Employers’ attack” make this clear.

The most important example was the contract battle by the West Coast dockworkers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Journalists typically portrayed the ILWU as a barrier to progress-even though it was an employers’ lockout that shut down the ports for 10 days in September-October 2002. President George W. Bush’s use of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, ostensibly aimed at ending the lockout, in fact gave the employers’ dictates the backing of the federal courts-a fact barely noted in the mainstream press.

Similarly, reporters blamed the crisis gripping the airlines largely on labor. New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote in an article published April 27, 2003, “The pilots, the machinists and other airline unions have obtained some of the highest wages in organized labor in decades past, helping push their airlines’ operating costs so high that the airlines became vulnerable to downturns and more recently to the emergence of low-cost upstarts like Jet Blue.” In fact, unionized workers at United Airlines accepted massive concessions in 1994-and the company ended up bankrupt anyway. Few reporters have examined the human costs of an estimated $35 billion in airline labor concessions-lost jobs, cut wages, broken families and worse. The same is true of the series of steel industry bankruptcies, which have wiped out health insurance and cut pensions for tens of thousands of retirees.

Fortunately, alternatives exist. The reportage and analysis in “Employers Attack” were expanded in a subsequent article in the International Socialist Review, “Labor’s War at Home” (March-April 2003, online athttp://www.isreview.org). Web sites such as LaborNet (http://www.labornet.org), Socialist Worker (http://www.socialistworker.org), Labor Notes (http://www.labornotes.org) Znet (http://www.zmag.org) and CounterPunch(http://www.counterpunch.org) regularly post news and analysis of organized labor. These outlets have followed one of the most important political developments in the unions in many years-widespread opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq and the formation of the organization “U.S. Labor Against the War.” They also frequently cover union reform efforts ignored by the media.