Unionbusting Firms Profiting from Corporate America's Fear of Workers' Rights

As political wars broke out yesterday over union rights, at a hearing before the Senate health and labor committee, economic experts were joined by union members -- an electrical line repair woman from Alaska and others -- who explained the benefits of joining a union as a gateway to the middle class. The battle over the Employee Free Choice Act introduced yesterday, however, is also proving to be a full-employment project not just for lobbyists and flacks, but "union avoidance" firms such as Jackson-Lewis that are marketing "Employee Free Choice Act Defense Kits" for nearly $5,000 a set, if you act now. Jackson Lewis asks:

Is your company at risk for a union organizing attempt? Is everyone, at every level of your company, aware of the tactics unions are using today to gain new members? EFCA calls for revolutionary changes to labor law, changes that would allow them to organize your entire workforce by simply getting 50% +1 employee to sign a "union authorization" card. That means 100% of your employees could become union members without ever having been asked to voice their opinion on that representation ... representation that would obligate every employee to pay dues, that would obligate you to bargain on wages, benefits and working conditions, and could make your company liable to substantial fines for any infraction of the law. [Editor's note: Not really. Labor laws are virtually unenforced.] Introducing the EFCA Defense Kit: The Ultimate Union-Free Solution ...With the anticipated shifts in the political climate, its imperative that every company begin educating employees at all levels in order to protect those employees' rights. Companies that are caught unaware of the card check provisions in this law could find themselves facing a unionized workforce that never had the chance to hear the potential downside of union membership. A vital, time-limited offer The EFCA Defense Kit is worth every penny and more. In fact, many companies who understand the cost of a union organizing drive, or worse yet, unionization, consider the cost of this kit nominal for the powerful information it delivers. The kit contains 6 DVDs that educate upper management, supervisors and mid-level managers, existing employees and new employees. What's more, it offers ongoing communication that will help your company stay union-free for years to come - all through great communication tools and positive employee relations.

The alarmist instructional materials join the newly updated Jackson Lewis's fear-inducing seminars (like the one I reported on undercover for In These Times) that come sporting rave views from some leading American companies. The firm's latest brochure for "How to Stay Union Free" asks a panicked corporate America: "Is your organization fully prepared for the new NLRB, the new EFCA Law and the new Union Organizing Tactics?" The law firm warns in bold red:

*The union organizing threat is greater than ever before. *In these turbulent times the stakes are higher. *No organization is safe from the risk.

Is this describing the spread of a lethal smallpox virus or the right of workers to organize? Employers are naturally grateful for learning how to engage in various tactics that are generally perfectly legal if they avoid direct threats: These include one-on-one "sweat sessions" that essentially intimidate workers about joining a union, and captive audience meetings with groups of workers to warn how unionization could deplete their paychecks and possibly lead the company to shut down -- all, they argue, worsened by the dreaded Employee Free Choice Act. No wonder corporate executives offer high praise for the training they get:

"We all know you can never "over communicate" with employees, but "how" you communicate is just as important as "what" you communicate. Thanks to your efforts, we were able to communicate a difficult message in and engaging and effective way." Director, Global Labor and Employee Relations, Honeywell

And an official with the nursing home chain Golden Living is equally pleased with the advice it receives from Jackson Lewis. No matter that Golden Living has been investigated both by the federal government in a whistleblower complaint about alleged medical equipment Medicare fraud and as part of a still-pending wrongful death suit, both still-unproven allegations that have been firmly denied by the company. Even so, it took time out from its legal schedule and anti-union efforts to praise Jackson Lewis's strategic insights:

"I have been involved with training programs for associates on matters including union avoidance and unlawful harassment. It has been my opinion for many years that you put out the best videos on the subject of union avoidance." General Counsel, Labor and Employment Law, Golden Living

In contrast to the unionbusters and their corporate clients, workers and their allies see the benefit of unions for not only their own standard of living but the broader economy. At the hearing yesterday, Deborah Kelly explained how the Electrical Workers union (IBEW) she joined gave her the training needed to do dangerous electrical line repair work and then enabled her to get treatment for her thyroid cancer that she's since recovered from: "I know I'm never alone--my union provides a safety net and helps me ensure I have equal opportunity employment," she said. And Sharon Harrison, a Communications Workers of America member and call center employee in rural Virginia for ATT Mobility, saw an immediate difference after her then-non-union company, Cingular, merged with AT&T, which agreed to majority sign-up (labeled "card check" by opponents):

Because of that agreement, we weren't afraid anymore that management would retaliate against us for trying to form a union. When more than a majority of workers signed up for representation, all of us at AT&T Mobility were better for it. For workers, we were able to get better pay and benefits, lower health care costs, a grievance procedure and more opportunities. We know we're providing quality service and we know AT&T respects us. It's good for our employer, too. We're in a real partnership.

Even so, the introduction of the Employee Free Choice act by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who chaired the Senate hearings, was the trigger for a new round of vicious attacks by business groups who are suddenly posing as champions of workers by repeating the myth that the bill takes away the secret ballot. (In fact, it doesn't change the right of workers to ask for a secret ballot election, but offers them the option of seeking majority sign-up through authorizing cards if they want to avoid the intimidation and corporate terror tactics unleashed before the current NLRB "secret ballot" voting sham; currently that decision to opt for majority sign-up is now granted to employers only.) Not surprisingly, the business lobbies' new campaign of supposedly standing up for workers' rights comes after opposing for decades everything from the minimum wage to health and safety regulations to government-aided health insurance for kids, SCHIP. How has their approach of lower taxes for the wealthy and big businesses, deregulation and unionbusting worked out? It fueled massive income inequality, stagnant real wages and our current economic debacle. Stephen Lerner of the SEIU exploded this big business hypocrisy on Chris Matthews' Hardball show last evening:  The truth about the bill and the secret ballot myth was aptly summarized by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley when co-sponsoring the bill:

"When workers are able to band together to improve their workplaces and wages, we strengthen the middle class. During this time of economic downturn, it is more important than ever that workers have the opportunity to earn a good wage and provide for their families," said Merkley. "The Employee Free Choice Act is a critical component of this effort." Currently, federal law allows employers to choose whether workers use a petition or election process to decide whether to form a union. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow the workers themselves to decide whether and how to organize, so they have a free and fair opportunity to make that decision. "Whether forming a union is in workers' best interests is a decision that should be made by workers, not management," said Merkley.

But despite all that, conservative Republicans and business groups are continuing their non-stop assault on workers rights and the Employee Free Choice Act in apocalyptic tones. At the hearing yesterday, the ranking Republican on the Senate employment subcommittee, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) proclaimed:

"Support for this legislation is based on the fear that, if left to their own devices in the privacy of a voting booth, some American workers might choose not to join a union. This legislation creates a situation of worker intimidation and prohibits the ability of management and labor to work together in an increasingly dynamic economy."

And in an email to legislators, the National Association of Manufacturers, host of the blog, Shopfloor, contended that it would wreck the economy and rob workers of rights. They peddled those claims although the proposed bill just amends current law to allow workers to choose majority sign-up and there is overwhelming evidence that unionization boosts incomes and standards of living. The group, whose members include companies and trade groups from the American Petroleum Institute to Xerox, provided its latest spin:

"Our manufacturing economy faces many challenges ahead. As Congress considers legislation to address these concerns, we urge you to oppose proposals that will further hinder manufacturers' economic competitiveness and our ability to create jobs. The recently introduced Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA H.R. 1409/S.560) is one of the most direct threats to economic growth and job retention and creation...While pro-EFCA ads attempt to blur this issue, the evidence is clear - the bill eliminates the secret ballot for union certification."

"Lying helps," as SEIU president Andy Stern explained on the Rachel Maddow show Monday night. But a new grass-roots campaign on behalf of the bill has spurred renewed confidence in passage of the bill. Despite some wavering now by moderate Democrats, union activists still see the likelihood that, as one AFL-CIO strategist puts it, "This thing will pass." When Al Franken is seated, they're confident they can get the 60 votes for cloture -- and that will enable the bill to pass with a majority of votes, even if a few Democrats then defect to placate business interests, but they're still counting on retaining all 60 votes. Increasingly, the key business organizations that are spewing misleading information about the legislation are being targeted by the union movement. The day before the bill was introduced, SEIU organized a rally outside the offices of the Chamber of Commerce. The business organization and its allied trade groups spent nearly $140 million on lobbying last year, much of it targeting legislation and tougher regulations that could possibly benefit workers. They, in turn, support a unionbusting network of consultants and lawyers advising corpoprations that brings in, by some estimates, nearly $4 billion a year. Such unionbusting firms are seizing on the opportunity to capitalize on misinformation and business fear over the proposed legislation: To fight back, it's not surprising, then, that a broad array of progressive, consumer, and religious groups are supporting the legislation and gearing up for a grass-roots campaign to overcome Big Business's money-fueled lobbying and PR blitz. As Robert Borosage of The Campaign for America's Future summed up:

The Employee Free Choice Act will help restore the right of workers to organize in this country. Over the last decades, that basic right has been shredded, as companies waged open warfare on union organizing, and administrations often failed to enforce the laws protecting that right. But the Employee Free Choice Act isn't just about worker rights. It's about whether we can return to an economy with a broad middle class....It will be a critical building block of the new economy that we must construct from the ashes of the old.

But despite the bill's importance, Rachel Maddow and other progressives, are taking sharper aim at the GOP and business interests, including unionbusters, who are smearing the Employee Free Choice Act:


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