Archives for category: Unions

After the inspiring teachers’ strike in 2019, which closed every public school in the state, the billionaire Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia promised to veto any charter school legislation. He lied. The legislation passed, and the Governor signed it.

The state established a state charter board, which proceeded to award seven charters, mostly to a for-profit charter corporation that manages low-performing charters in Ohio.

But a county judge stopped the clock by issuing an injunction to halt the new charter schools.

A Kanawha County judge has temporarily blocked five public charter schools from opening in West Virginia.

Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey granted a preliminary injunction Monday sought by parents and education union members.

They filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jim Justice and leaders of the state Senate and House.

In the suit, the plaintiffs claim residents should be able to weigh in on any charter school established in their county.

They are challenging the authority of the Professional Charter Schools Board, a group that has its members appointed by the governor.

Last month, the board approved charter schools in Morgantown, Nitro and in Jefferson County, along with two online charter schools.

The judge outlined her logic in granting the temporary injunction.

“The plain language of Article 10, Section 12 of our state constitution provides that no independent school district or organization shall hereafter be created except with the consent of the school district or districts, out of which the same is created, expressed by a majority of the voters voting on the question,” Bailey said.

One of the arguments in the lawsuit was that the transfer of the student – and the tax money that goes with that student – is the same thing as creating an independent school district, and there is a specific prohibition against that in the state constitution – unless there is a public vote.

The two parents bringing suit are members of the American Federation of Teachers union.

“It is unconstitutional to create a new school system within our current school system and that’s what this bill seems to do,” AFT-WV President Fred Albert said.

After some county school boards voted no to approving a charter school in their areas, lawmakers created the Professional Charter Schools Board, which could OK charter schools without a county school board’s approval.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the injunction is wrong because acts of the Legislature are presumed to be constitutional and because the parents should have sued the charter school board not the governor and legislators. He said he will seek relief from the state Supreme Court.

Thanks to G.F. Brandenburg, who posted this very important report about The Battle of Blair Mountain, a largely forgotten milestone in the history of unionism.

Brandenburg opens his post by reminding us that the rich and powerful usually control history and write the narrative.

He adds this dramatic story of The Battle of Blair Mountain, which is unknown to most people and barely remembered in the state where it happpened. The famous but almost-forgotten battle pitted underpaid, impoverished miners against the coal industry’s hired and well-armed detectives and union-busters. After several days of fighting, federal troops were sent in to stop the combat.

The story was written by Irina Zhorov and appeared on PBS WHYY.

The site of the conflict is marked by an inconspicuous plaque. The land is inaccessible because its owned by a coal company.

Here is the lead-up to the Battle of Blair Mountain:

In early 20th-century Appalachia, miners in the southern West Virginia coal fields lived in company towns. They were dependent on their bosses for every necessity, including their homes and food. Pay was low. Living and working conditions were deplorable.

The United Mine Workers union attempted to organize miners in the region, but the coal companies fought back, often violently. In a series of clashes now called the Mine Wars, both union and company supporters were killed.

By 1921, tensions were coming to a head. Miners in Mingo County, south of Blair, had joined the union. In retaliation, the company had evicted them from their homes. The miners had been rounded up and were being kept in pens. State police had cut off food supplies, so families were starving.

Then private detectives who worked for the coal companies brazenly murdered a union sympathizer named Sid Hatfield, a hero to the miners. It was broad daylight, and Hatfield’s wife was by his side. Tensions boiled over.

One week after the murder, Frank Keeney, the leader of West Virginia’s United Mine Workers chapter — and Chuck Keeney’s great-grandfather — gave a series of speeches to rally miners in the coal fields.

Miners—10,000-15,000 of them—marched 50 miles to Blair Mountain to protest and fight.

Clearly, there are many people in West Virginia today whose parents or grandparents took up arms against the tyrannous coal companies. They know the history because it’s personal.

Yet this legacy of labor militancy does not seem to have any role in today’s politics. West Virginia is a red state with a Republican-controlled legislature. The Governor, Jim Justice, was a Republican who became a Democrat for his election in 2016. Seven months after his election, he reverted back to being a Republican, at a political rally with Trump by his side. Governor Justice is a billionaire who controls many businesses, mostly in agriculture and coal mining.

Why do West Virginians keep electing and re-electing Republicans who are hostile to the interests of poor and working-class people?

In this article, Marcus Baram of Capital & Main describes a surprising alliance between a veteran labor organizer and his chief nemesis, a man who was a master of union-busting.

He begins:

They were certainly an odd couple, the unlikeliest of allies: the union organizer and the notorious union buster. Bob Muehlenkamp, a stalwart of the modern-day labor movement, has coordinated hundreds of union organizing campaigns and was the organizing director of the Teamsters and SEIU 1199, the hospital workers union. Martin Jay Levitt, a master of corporate skulduggery, did everything he could as a consultant hired by hundreds of companies to intimidate workers into not joining a union. Once, during an organizing effort marked by threats of violence at one of the country’s biggest hospital systems, Muehlenkamp was handcuffed and arrested for trespassing, Levitt relishing another victory as employees voted not to join a union. They were on opposite sides, fighting tooth and nail, for close to 20 years.

Until Levitt had a change of heart, and in the late 1980s reached out to Muehlenkamp about his desire to write a book exposing the dirty tricks of the union-busting industry. Levitt’s Confessions of a Union Buster was published in 1993 and immediately made waves, with Levitt appearing on 60 Minutesand giving lectures around the country to denounce his former colleagues and confess his sins. “Union-busting is a field populated by bullies and built on deceit,” he wrote. “The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten and always, always attack.” He described how his former firm, Modern Management Methods, had developed a methodology for breaking down employee support for unions by using psychological tactics and turning managers into anti-union spokespersons.

His new career as a reformer earned him enemies on both sides — panicking his old colleagues in the union avoidance consulting industry and arousing skepticism among former nemeses in the labor movement, one of whom called him a “cheesy hustler.”

Levitt wrote about his insatiable greed, his alcoholism, a rap sheet that included forgeries, check fraud and arson, and multiple illegal activities on behalf of some of America’s biggest companies. Critics called him an opportunist, but some labor veterans, including Muehlenkamp, saw him as an important ally who could help them learn how to combat the union busters.

Levitt was a complicated penitent — just months after the book was published, he went to jail for obtaining credit by false pretenses — and he passed away in 2004 without having won over that many of his former antagonists.

https://e.infogram.com/047ec8bd-9d2b-43d6-9143-48a3cc2b5b73?parent_url=https%3A%2F%2Fcapitalandmain.com%2Finside-the-secretive-world-of-union-busting-the-story-of-an-unlikely-alliance&src=embed#async_embed

But his seminal book has served as a guide for union organizers and their allies. Levitt describes how his former industry benefited enormously from a 1950s-era loophole in labor law that allowed companies to hire anti-union consultants without disclosing those arrangements — one of the “enormous, gaping errors in the law that have left room for a sleazy billion-dollar industry to plod through,” Levitt wrote. That loophole was closed in 2016 by the Department of Labor, finally shedding light on an industry paid an estimated $340 million a year by companies. The labor victory was short-lived — just a few years later, the loophole was reopened by the Trump administration, and the Biden administration has yet to take action.

The book is being reprinted, with a new introduction and appendix by Muehlenkamp, who writes that “it documents the dirty underside of how U.S. corporations, who routinely bargain with unions in other countries, attacked and weakened American democracy. The question is, what can we do about it? We know how to have the best chance at beating the union busters. It starts with reading Levitt’s book. Know the enemy and take them as seriously as they take a union.”

Muehlenkamp talked to Capital & Main about his experiences in the movement, knowing Levitt as enemy and ally, and what he sees as the biggest challenges facing unions today.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To read the interview, open the link.

This part of Capital & Main’s examination of union busting reviews the targeting of academics who study labor by corporate critics. It was written by Jo Constantz.

Many scholars who study the history and economics of organized labor are sympathetic to the union cause. These academics often encounter threats, harassment, and defunding of their research.

It begins:

Throttled by both strong-arm tactics from anti-union interests and a chronic lack of support from universities, the field of labor studies has dwindled in the U.S. in recent years.

Researchers in the field have been the target of legal threats and lawsuits, onerous public records requests and misinformation campaigns from union avoidance consultants, business executives, corporate lawyers and conservative think tanks. It’s one aspect of the business lobby’s relentless war against unions in recent decades, which has seen companies spend more than $340 million a year on consultants to defeat organizing efforts by their employees and helped sink union membership.

Labor studies, an interdisciplinary field in academia that examines workplace issues and worker organizations, reveals working conditions that motivate people to want to join a union. Much of the scholarship has illuminated the central role that labor’s decline has played in exacerbating income inequality. In doing so, the field has aroused the ire of anti-union companies and their allies. The field has never been a major force in academia and many centers have been gradually shuttered due to lack of funding or merged with other departments. Only a handful of universities currently offer a major or minor in labor studies. Faculty are often untenured, vulnerable to layoffs and budget cuts, and they are often not replaced when they retire.

Open the link and read on.

This article in the Capital & Main series was written by Marcus Baram and is titled ”Inside the Secretive World of Union-Busting: Here’s How Much Corporations Pay to Bust Unions.” Subtitle: “U.S. companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year to ensure workers don’t organize.”

It begins:

A handful of workers at the Dollar General In the small Connecticut town of Barkhamsted had grown frustrated last September at being poorly treated by a district manager, amid allegations

The organizing effort involved just six workers (five after one said he was fired for his efforts to unionize) earning $13 an hour — so about $624 a day in total — but the company spent multiples of that to combat the union drive. Dollar General paid Labor Relations Institute, a firm known for its union avoidance consulting, a fee of $2,700 per day for each consultant it brought in, according to filings with the Department of Labor. LRI used five consultants, who reportedly held one-on-one meetings with workers and conducted group sessions to educate them on the risks of joining a union. In the end, the unionization effort failed and the company breathed a sigh of relief. The retail giant posted $33.7 billion in sales and $2.7 billion in profit in 2020, but remains convinced its future earnings might have been hurt if any of its 157,000 workers joined a union.

What do you say when a corporation cares more about profits than the lives of its workers?

In part one of its review of union busting, written by Jo Constantz, Capital & Main examines how employers use technology to defeat unions.

It begins:

During a Zoom call set up by union representatives and employees who had organized a worker organizing committee, “We noticed that managers of the company had busted into the meeting — they had crashed our Zoom call,” recalls Lorena Lopez, a director of organizing with UNITE HERE Local 11. “Workers started to get very nervous and shut down their cameras so they wouldn’t be recognized. I was running the meeting and asked everyone to ID themselves. But the company people refused.” During the meeting, a worker on the cleaning crew had volunteered to be the spokesperson for the group. According to Lopez, this worker was confronted by management the next day and pressured to quit.

“They were spying on us — and it was easy to do via Zoom,” she says. Under a settlement agreement with the NLRB, the company agreed to post flyersinforming employers of their right to unionize and pledged not to ask them about organizing efforts and not to surveil their Zoom meetings. A lawyer for the company did not return requests for comment.

Workplace surveillance, already widespread in the U.S., has become even more prevalent during the pandemic as employers try to enforce public health measures and monitor remote workers. According to research by Gartner, a market research firm, 60% of large employers use workplace monitoring tools, twice as many as before the pandemic. Coworker.org, a labor research nonprofit, recently compiled a database of over 550 of these commercially available products, which it dubs “little tech,” and published a study outlining potential harms and noting the industry’s general lack of regulation.

Open the link and keep reading.

When people bemoan the increasing inequality in American society, they usually fail to mention one of the reasons for the huge gaps between those at the top and those at the bottom of wealth and income: The decline of unions. Unions didn’t disappear because workers lost interest in being represented by them. Major employers never liked unions, which demanded better pay and better working conditions, and thereby raised costs and cut profits. They used every opportunity to dispense with them, whether by automation, outsourcing to non-union states or nations, or intimidation.

California-based Capital & Main has produced an important series about union-busting tactics today. Capital & Main is a fearless, award-winning web journal. it specializes in investigative reporting and is typically on the cutting edge of political issues. It recently published a four-part series on the tactics used by union-busters. I will post them in order today. I strongly support unions. I have never belonged to a union, but I keenly believe in the importance of unions. Unions were the route into the middle class for millions of people. Unions were strong supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The rightwing attack on organized labor has almost stamped out unions in the private sector over the past half century. The withering of unions coincides with the dramatic increase in inequality of incomeand equality. There are signs of a rebirth of unionism. Terrible working conditions and low pay are spurring on this movement. The big corporations are ripe for change, but as today’s articles show, the powerful oligarchs will fight to maintain union-free workplaces.

This is the introduction.

The company owner was so worried about his employees joining a union that he mounted machine guns to keep labor organizers off his coal mine, launched an anti-union magazine and even secretly funded a Black newspaper to convince African-American workers that unions were dangerous. Those union-busting tactics worked, allowing mine magnate Charles Debardeleben to stop his workers in the industrial Birmingham-Bessemer area of northern Alabama from joining a union during the 1920s and 1930s.

Almost a century later, the tactics have gotten less physically intimidating but remain just as effective. Earlier this year in Bessemer, Amazon was easily able to fend off a well-publicized union organizing effort through a relentless anti-union campaign that included a website, text messages to employees, fliers posted in bathrooms and classic techniques like captive audience meetings, in which workers can be forced to sit for hours and listen to anti-union consulting firms paid at least $20,000 a day. Some of the tactics may have been illegal — the National Labor Relations Board recently authorized a new election after the union argued that the company’s decision to install a mailbox onsite created the false impression that Amazon was running the election, which pressured workers to vote against the union.

https://e.infogram.com/047ec8bd-9d2b-43d6-9143-48a3cc2b5b73?parent_url=https%3A%2F%2Fcapitalandmain.com%2Finside-the-secret-world-of-union-busting&src=embed#async_embed

While union membership has risen slightly since 2018 thanks to some major organizing wins, and public approval of unions is at its highest level since 1965, labor has a lot of ground to make up. Union membership plummeted from 20.1% of American wage and salary workers in 1983 to just 10.8% in 2020. One of the biggest reasons for that decline is the use of well-funded, aggressive campaigns by employers to fight off unions, conducted largely through expensive union avoidance consultants and lawyers. In 2019, it was estimated that companies spend at least $340 million per year on such consultants and often engage in illegal tactics, for which the penalties are minimal.

“They seem to be more aggressive than they used to be,” says Joe Hernandez, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers in Orange County, California. “There was a union election in South Dakota, where pro-union workers who had a couple of tardies that were previously overlooked ended up getting fired. Other times they just close down the store or factory. They’re doing it all — using surveillance technology, social media messaging, whatever they can to beat the union.” (Disclosure: UFCW is a financial supporter of this website.)

In conversations with dozens of union officials, union avoidance consultants, former regulatory officials and workers, we’ve gained insights into union-busting activities by companies ranging from behemoths like Starbucks, Amazon, CVS, Dollar General and Safeway to health care organizations like Kaiser Permanente and HCA-affiliated hospitals to gig economy startups like HelloFresh and Imperfect Foods.

In a series of four stories, Capital & Main will explore the role and impact of union busting: how your favorite companies still aren’t required to disclosehow much they spend on such consultants, how new workplace surveillance technologies have been exploited by some businesses to help them defeat organizing efforts, how labor studies academics have been pressured and intimidated by pro-business think tanks and lawmakers to stop their research into workplace issues — plus an interview with a longtime union organizer about his unlikely alliance with one of the most notorious union busters.


Robert Kuttner wrote the following for The American Prospect, which he co-founded and where he is co-editor. It is “the authoritative magazine of liberal ideas.” I urge you to subscribe.

As the EU provides rules for gig workers, young people foul up Kellogg’s strikebreaking plans.
The certification of one Starbucks out of the thousands in the U.S. is getting an appropriate amount of attention—the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single latte. My colleague Harold Meyerson has further thoughts on how to organize fed-up workers who haven’t been reached before. But that wasn’t the only interesting development in worker organizing this week.

After 1,400 striking workers at four Kellogg plants rejected the latest contract offer, the company made plans to hire replacement scabs. There was just one problem: organized discontent. A poster on the popular Reddit community r/antiwork, which has 1.3 million members, got members to surge fake applications to the online hiring portal. Then a young TikTok user created a codeto automatically fill out fake applications for the jobs perpetually. Kellogg may find it impossible to distinguish the real applications from the bogus ones. The kids are all right.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, the EU has proposed regulations that will give gig workers, an estimated four million in the 27-nation federation, most of the same rights as payroll workers. That would include minimum-wage protections, vacation pay, unemployment benefits, and protections against misclassification.

If it can happen there, it can happen here. Biden’s Labor Department has begun a major offensive against employers who try to classify regular workers as contractors to deny them benefits and the right to unionize. And if the platform model of exploiting workers can be shown to be vulnerable in Europe, that makes it easier to restore worker rights here.

Europe, incidentally, is not experiencing a Great Resignation, because workers there are treated better to begin with. Credit the pandemic or credit a shift in consciousness, but we are seeing definite gains to worker power on both sides of the Atlantic.


~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Steven Greehouse, a veteran journalist, wrote an article for The American Prospect that demonstrates the power of unions to improve the lives of workers. The story includes vignettes of workers in different fields who describe how joining a union has raised their salaries, cut the cost of healthcare, and created a workplace where their voices are heard.

He tells the stories of the following working people, whose lives were changed by organizing or joining a union.

  • Laura Asher, a former combat medic who was working as a hospital aide, saw her pay jump when she entered her union’s apprenticeship program to become a crane operator. Her pay is now more than three times what her hospital job paid.
  • Gregory Swanson, a charter school teacher, was hugely frustrated that his school’s top official assigned him a salary far below his level of experience. But his union contract changed that, requiring the school to follow a pay scale based on years of experience.
  • Madeleine Souza-Rivera, a barista at a café in one of Google’s giant office complexes, used to feel overwhelmed by the $9,600 she paid each year in health care premiums. Thanks to her union contract, she now pays nothing toward health premiums.
  • Donnell Jefferson, a warehouse worker, complained that he was never sure when he could leave work—his boss would suddenly order workers to put in two, and sometimes even eight, extra hours on the job. But with his union contract, his work hours are now far more predictable.
  • Lorie Quinn, a hospital housekeeper who cleans intensive-care units, has seen her pay increase by 70 percent since her hospital unionized six years ago. Moreover, her health insurance premiums have been cut in half.

More than 14 million workers across the United States—carpenters, steelworkers, nurses, teachers, truck drivers, and many others—are union members, but rarely does one read how unions have improved workers’ jobs and lives.

On his regular television show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver explains how big corporations like Amazon prevent their workers from forming a union. They hire expensive consultants to advise them on tactics. They bombard their workers with warnings about what they will lose if they join a union. They require them to watch anti-union videos.

His show is both informative and amusing. He runs an anti-union video in which two actors play the part of workers who warn their colleagues not to join the union. After all, “we are one big family here.” Oliver points out that the two actors belong to a union. When he questions them about their hypocrisy, he responds that he can be paid to act like a rapist, but that doesn’t make him a rapist.

This show is a must-see. Oliver relies on data gathered by the Economic Policy Institute in D.C., which is a rare think tank that supports labor unions and progressive legislation.