Monday, February 25, 2008

New U.S. Export: Union-Busting

In the United States we do not bump off union leaders. No, we are somewhat more humane. We let professional teams of lawyers, management consultants, psychologists, and others subvert union leaders and their organizations through sophisticated techniques of union-busting.

Pardon me. They call it union avoidance. Either way, its practitioners collect an estimated $4,000,000,000 a year from employers to keep unions out of work places and to remove those already there, all by using activities that are legal, quasi-legal, and extra-legal, as well as illegal. They can resort to illegal practices because the penalties are so minimal.

So great is their success in the United States that the union busters are expanding their operations off shore, particularly to the United Kingdom. That troubles the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), the national labor union center that partners with the AFL-CIO. On February 12 leaders of the two national centers formalized an agreement to work together to counter this transatlantic anti-union offensive.

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, explains: “The underhanded tactics employed in the shadowy world of the union-busting consultant are improving increasingly attractive to a handful employers in the UK.”

“Union Avoidance Consultants: a Threat to the Rights of British Workers,” a study by John Logan, of the London School of Management, was released to coincide with the new cooperation. Logan writes that the overwhelming majority of employers in the United States hire outside consultants when they are faced with an employee move to organize.

Among their techniques, these outsiders:

  • Caution workers not to trust unions: unions "get between” management and its employees.
  • Concentrate on spreading fear in employee ranks, charging that unions are corrupt and interested only in dues, that jobs aren’t safe under a union, that unions can’t require the boss to give a pay increase, that benefits including vacations and insurance are in peril, and so on and on, in every possible variation.
  • Take full advantage of the legalized monopoly that they and the employer have in workplace communication with employees, including compulsory meetings and one-on-one interviews designed to put full pressure on individuals.

At present, such activity in the UK is much smaller in scale and intensity than in the United States. Yet, as Logan says, the new export development should still be worrisome to “anyone who believes in the workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Let me expand on that point. Such activity should worry anyone anywhere who believes in a free society. Unions in the United States, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere have proven their value in acting as a cushion between the individual and the state. Along with other private organizations, including business firms, labor unions build and maintain a living social structure – a vigorous civil society – that creates limits on the power of government and performs many necessary economic and social functions more closely to the people than the government can.

If more Americans understood the need for a flourishing civil society, union-busters would drastically lose their effectiveness. As things are, exterminating unions is an occupation widely seen by professional peers and many others as legitimate, not one to be shunned, scorned, and shamed.

Chances are not great that the new U.S.-UK initiative will bring an end to what Business Week has called “one of the most successful anti-union wars ever.” But it must be tried, in hopes that other groups of this democratic nation, including at least a few leading employers, will join it.

* * *

But -- do workers still want unions?

If you’re wondering, read the report, “Do Workers Still Want Unions? More Than Ever,” published by the Economic Policy Institute. The author, economist Richard B. Freeman, compiles 16 pages of evidence that they do.

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