Sunday, July 2, 2017


      Your name is Karen Harper and you live in Granville, Ohio. You’re thirty-six years old, married with two children, and you’ve been working at the Kingstown Widget factory for a total of eight years. Although you twice left the factory (without pay) for a year following the births of your children, you always came back. The factory accepted your return because the evaluations done every six months by your various supervisors were uniformly good. You showed up on time, week after week, ready willing and able to give a day’s work for a day’s pay.

    And there’s the rub.

     Kingstown Widget’s pay scale was significantly below the standard for assembly line workers in Ohio. What’s more, the firm offered no sick leave, no pension plan and no health insurance. Conditions inside the factory were poor, as demonstrated by the many fines imposed by government agencies, state and federal. Yet conditions never seemed to improve. The overhead lighting was dim enough to make accidents more likely; fumes from the paint room leaked onto the factory floor; the break rooms were haphazardly cleaned and the bathrooms so filthy employees used them only when desperate.

      Enough being enough, you decided, along with the Doyle twins, Bob and Jimmy, to seek advice from the Widget Workers of America (WWA). When the union offered to sponsor an organizing drive, you eagerly accepted. At first, you and the Doyle brothers contacted only your most trusted co-workers, urging them to sign cards indicating their desire to form a union affiliated with the WWA. The process was slow because you wanted to gather momentum before management discovered what you were doing.

      Despite your caution, someone alerted the company about six months into the drive and you had to go public. By that time, you’d convinced 30% of the workers to sign union cards, enough to force the company to hold an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But the experienced organizers at WWA advised against this strategy. If you hold the election now, they explained, workers who didn’t sign cards will feel left out and coerced.

      So, you persevered, promoting the union in the only places you were, by law, allowed, the break rooms and the parking lots. Management countered by posting supervisors in both places. They stood against the wall or leaned against company trucks, occasionally writing names on the small pads they carried in their back pockets. You weren’t surprised. Intimidation was a technical violation of the labor laws, but the only remedy was an appeal to the NLRB where your complaint would sit for eighteen months on average. In addition, Kingstown Widget hired Haverman, Brown and Sherman, a well-established consulting firm, to advise them on union-busting tactics. HBS charged, rumor had it, a thousand dollars an hour for its advice.

      You (and by now a dozen activists) countered these moves by shifting your activities outside the plant, contacting your fellow workers in bars, churches, PTA meetings and high school football games, until you registered 65% of the plant’s workers. At that point, you requested union recognition. This formula worked for many decades after the Wagner Act was signed into law, but Kingstown Widget, urged on by HBS, demanded an election by secret ballot, a standard ploy for businesses committed to an anti-union strategy.

       A week later, you and the Doyle brothers, in full view of other workers at the plant, were summarily fired. Supervisors approached you while you worked – this was an object lesson, after all – and escorted you to your locker, then out of the building, then into your cars. They watched you drive away, watched the factory gates close behind you.

       You knew this might be coming because the tactic, though another gross violation of labor law, was commonplace. Kingstown Widget, your advisers at WWA had explained early on, suffered no risk by firing you. Your only recourse was a complaint to the NLRB, which you made. But even if the agency eventually ruled in your favor, Kingstown Widget, with plants in four states, would at most pay a fine in the thousands of dollars. As for you, Karen Harper, you would receive back pay, but only if you didn’t work somewhere else in the meantime.

      The news didn’t get any better when your WWA advisors told you that an appeal to the NLRB doesn’t end with their ruling, which will almost certainly be in your favor. Any decision on the part of the agency can be appealed to the federal court system, first to a district court, then to a circuit court and finally to the Supreme Court. Depending on how much money Kingstown Widget is prepared to spend, it could be many years before your case is resolved.

      Things were no better at the plant. Management called mass meeting on the factory floor, attendance compulsory, where the perils of unionization were enumerated by carefully chosen executives. Who knows what might happen, they told workers, if the drive succeeded? Profit margins at the plant were small and the competition, much of it located in China, was relentless. Decisions would have to be made. Moving overseas? Expanding Kingstown’s Wisconsin plant? Massive layoffs? No remedy was off the table.

      That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Throughout the workday, employees were called into one-on-one meetings with their immediate supervisors. Identical threats were made, along with demands to know if the workers planned to vote for the union. These supervisors were the same men and women who evaluated the workers every six months. They could – and sometimes did – recommend termination. But the supervisors were more interested in who opposed unionization than who supported it. Some anti-union employees were turned into company spies who attended meetings held outside the factory and reported back. Others were groomed to disrupt the meetings by raising the possibility that all would lose their jobs. And there would be no immediate replacements in the community. The county was shedding jobs, not adding them.

      The months dragged by, the battle going on for more than a year, but in the end a majority of Kingstown Widget’s employees voted to affiliate with the Widget Workers of America. A great victory… except for one detail. Yes, the company was forced to recognize the union as the bargaining agent for its employees. But that didn’t mean Kingstown Widget had to bargain in good faith. The company managed to postpone the first bargaining session for almost three months, then demanded a wage rollback, that a third of current employees have their hours reduced, that break times in the morning and afternoon be eliminated, that employees pay for a parking space during work hours, that cell phones be left in employee lockers during the workday, that no allowance be made for parents leaving early to pick up their children….

     The list went on, but that didn’t matter, since it was designed to be unacceptable. And yet it remained unchanged over time, all pretense at “bargaining” out the window. A WWA complaint to the NLRB, now chaired by Trump appointee Philip Miscimarra, went unaddressed. Weeks turned into months, then the months to a year, whereupon Kingstown Widget demanded that the union be decertified and a second election held. Collective bargaining was suspended at that point, pending a ruling by the NLRB. The ruling never came. Discouraged workers lost all faith in the WWA’s ability to effect change and dropped their support. Union rallies went virtually unattended. Game over.

      And as for you, Karen Harper? You now work at Chipotle for $9.00 an hour. Without benefits.

      Every element of the scenario described above is a commonplace occurrence in union organizing drives. The right of the company to force employees into mass meetings and/or one-on-one conferences with supervisors has been blessed by the Supreme Court, as has the right of the company to force an election even if every worker has signed a card indicating her/his desire for a union. Meanwhile, an underfunded NLRB – which, now that Trump has been elected will have three of its five members chosen from anti-union Republican ranks – takes eighteen months to generate rulings that can be stayed pending appeals to the various federal courts. Finally, the penalties issued by the NLRB are so small as to be laughable.

       The deck is stacked against unionization, that much is obvious. The rules of game leave workers with no effective way to determine their own fate. At the same time, poll after poll demonstrates that an absolute majority of Americans approve of unions.

      The Employee Free Choice Act discussed in a prior post addresses every one of the abuses described here. Businesses are effectively unionized when the union gathers more than fifty percent of workers’ signatures. And any attempt on the part of the company to stall contract negotiations first results in compulsory mediation, then arbitration should mediation fail. The real questions are why Democrats haven’t pushed for the legislation, and why the party allowed a few Senators, led by the execrable Ben Nelson, doom the effort in 2009 without paying a price?

      And maybe there’s one more question to be answered. The Republican attack on trade unions over the past forty years has been relentless. But can Dems claim that their defense of unions has been equally relentless? I think not.

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