Conduct a quick survey of the websites of the big labor unions and you will find that organized labor is currently undertaking at least two dozen major “corporate campaigns.” The union organizing campaigns have radical titles such as “Justice for Janitors,” “Hotel Workers Rising” and “Wake Up Wal-Mart.” Their rhetoric consists of fiery attacks on “sweatshops” and “Killer Coke,” but don’t dismiss these latest union attacks on business enterprises as juvenile name-calling. If you want to understand how unions operate in modern society, you’ll need to put aside your old memories of movies and news stories about Walter Reuther and George Meany. The tactics unions use today in contemporary organizing campaigns are a far cry from the old-fashioned tactics of labor-management negotiation.
Modern corporate campaigns don’t wait until negotiations stall at the bargaining table. Instead, they attempt to publicly smear corporations and ruin their reputations, using all the instruments of information technology and public relations. The unions’ goal is to break the resolve of company leaders before they even reach the negotiating table. Over the past several decades, unions have seen their memberships age and their total numbers decline. Unions are in “desperation mode.” Moreover, unions increasingly face corporate managements that are out-sourcing jobs to stay competitive in worldwide markets.
As private-sector unions weaken and decline, they have tried to project an image of strength using tactics that do them no credit. Unions want the public to see them exert pressure on congressional Democratic leaders to pass pro-labor legislation, on ordinary workers to sign away their right to a private ballot, and on companies to smooth the path toward compulsory unionism. The tactics aren’t pretty.
The corporate campaign is just part of the ugly and fascinating story of how the modern labor movement seeks to stem its ebbing membership tide.
Corporate Campaigning 101
The process goes something like this:
1. A union decides to target a worksite to be organized. It considers various factors: Perhaps the employer is complacent and imagines that the union doesn’t care about his business, or the employer enjoys good relations with his employees and assumes that the union will ignore his workforce. Big mistake. The union may also notice that the location of the worksite or the geographical distribution of the workers makes it easy to organize a corporate campaign. Sometimes a union will target an entire industry because the industry has organized its worksites in a way that make it easy to organize. For instance, Las Vegas casino owners can hardly move their operations away from the strip in order to thwart a union campaign to organize their hotel and restaurant workers. The unions know management can’t set up tents in the desert.
2. The union next begins to drive wedges between the workers and the employer. Just as important, it drives a wedge between the employer and the general public. This is where the innovative public relations aspect of the “corporate campaign” comes into play. The union’s goal is to put the employer on the defensive by hurting its reputation and, thereby, hurting its business. The union knows that the general public knows that union organizing is self-interested. But if the union can get civic and religious leaders on its side, interest journalists in its story, and persuade friendly officeholders to threaten the employer with additional regulations, then it stands a much better chance of winning support for its position.
3. When an employer is beaten down by bad publicity, accusations of unfair labor practices and unruly employees, it is more likely to agree to sign a “neutrality agreement” and allow a “card-check” campaign. The neutrality agreement is a promise that the employer will be “neutral” about union organizing and won’t try to persuade his workers not to join the union. A “card-check” campaign is a way to find out whether a worker wants a union. Instead of a federally-supervised, secret-ballot election, union operatives literally hand out cards for workers to sign that say they want the union. Maybe the union organizer gets a reward for the number of cards signed. And maybe workers sign the cards in front of the union organizers or their co-workers in order to avoid bad feelings or dirty looks. The result is that if a simple majority of the workers sign the cards, then the union becomes recognized as the sole bargaining agent for all the workers.
In three steps, a “union shop” is born.
Of course, all of this takes time and effort. Sometimes a union will invest years of time and thousands of man-hours, send out dozens of operatives, and spend millions of dollars to organize a worksite. If it can penetrate a single worksite just one time, it may find the key to organize the entire industry.
That key is the corporate campaign. Like a prize-fighter delivering body blows before scoring the knockout punch, unions serve up corporate campaigns to soften up employers. More often than not, the employer gives into union demands just to end union harassment.
Wal-Mart: The Favorite Target
The war on Wal-Mart is by far the corporate campaign most well-known by the general public and best-financed by the unions. In fact, there are two separate ongoing campaigns against Wal-Mart: “Wal-Mart Watch” is led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and “Wake Up Wal-Mart” is a campaign of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
That two unions are conducting smear campaigns against the world’s largest retailer doesn’t mean they are working together. The goal for each is to organize as many Wal-Mart workers as possible into its own union. Should Wal-Mart ever agree to unionize, the UFCW and the SEIU would compete in a race to organize workers — state by state, store by store.
Wal-Mart Watch is older and more organized. It does something that union observers know is typical in a corporate campaign. Even though it is the principal organizer, SEIU hides its involvement. It acts as if it were just one of many “stakeholders” in an education effort to alert the public about what’s wrong with Wal-Mart. The union purports to be merely one of many members on the campaign’s “board of directors.” The directors of Wal-Mart Watch include SEIU President Andrew Stern, but there are also representatives of feminist and left-wing reform groups, a green activist and a university professor. The campaign’s mission statement doesn’t even mention that SEIU’s goal is to organize Wal-Mart employees to become members of the union even though that’s the whole point.
A visitor to the Wal-Mart Watch website (walmartwatch.com) is offered plenty of ways to become active in the corporate campaign. There’s a blog to discuss all the ways Wal-Mart hurts workers, communities and the environment. There’s an e-newsletter. There’s a “handshake with Sam”—a kind of online petition in which the sender can demand health care benefits for Wal-Mart workers and respect for their “human dignity.” Then there are “Battle Mart” tips you can use to stop a Wal-Mart store from opening up in your neighborhood. The section on issues provides material that readers can use to educate themselves about off-the clock work, child labor, discrimination against women and minorities, polluting the environment, lying to regulators, even trying to repeal the death tax — all social sins alleged against Wal-Mart.
But nowhere is it made clear that SEIU is trying to organize Wal-Mart workers so that they will become dues-payers to the union. The purpose of the corporate campaign is to deliver body blows, but the knockout punch — unionization — is held in reserve and in secret. The feminists, environmentalists and consumer- and civil-rights activists, wittingly or not, are the tools of Big Labor.
Compare SEIU to the UFCW corporate campaign, which is both more specific and more defensive. SEIU wants to recruit lots more members, and it sees Wal-Mart as a target-rich environment for the already successful expansion of the union. By contrast, the UFCW has control over the workforce of one sector of the U.S. economy — the grocery store chains — and they are threatened by Wal-Mart.
In communities across America, high-cost unionized grocery stores are under pressure from “Super Wal-Marts” with full-service groceries. Wal-Mart relies on efficient just-in-time inventory controls and a non-union workforce, which means it often can sell its groceries more cheaply yet make more money than Safeway, Albertson’s or other unionized grocery chains. UFCW is starting to feel the squeeze: Its membership has fallen by nearly 5% in four years, from 1.375 million in 2001 to 1.31 million on 2005. Its financial assets have also taken a pounding, falling 28% to $128 million during the same period.
UFCW perhaps feels more urgency to thwart Wal-Mart than SEIU, but it is just as careful not to reveal its leadership in its anti-Wal-Mart corporate campaign. The Wake Up Wal-Mart website (wakeupwalmart.com) contains a page that is supposed to describe who is behind the campaign, but it does not identify the UFCW as the campaign organizer. Instead, the UFCW affiliation appears at the bottom of the page in fine print. Nowhere does the website mention that its purpose is to help UFCW unions organize Wal-Mart stores.
Like its SEIU counterpart, Wake Up Wal-Mart relies on the Internet to attract non-union visitors. Its website is a bit more sophisticated than the SEIU site. It parodies the Wal-Mart corporate website and makes use of You Tube-style videos. It contains a clock showing how much Wal-Mart “costs” U.S. taxpayers by skimping on employee health insurance, and it provides a toolkit for activists. There are supposed to be 329,000 anti-Wal-Mart member activists who have joined the site. They are urged to “adopt” the Wal-Mart store in their local community and to harass it with the website’s demands.
Wal-Mart has aggressively and intelligently combated these efforts. Its best defense against the smear campaign is precise factual rebuttals. It also advertises its own corporate good citizenship. Wal-Mart has several websites of its own: www.walmartfacts.com, which rebuts the unions’ claims; www.forwalmart.com, which represents “working families for Wal-Mart;” and www.paidcritics.com, which identifies its opponents and exposes their motives. That Wal-Mart has remained union-free is no surprise: It knows how to counter-attack.
Wal-Mart responds that it does provide its employees with a health care plan, just not the plan the unions demand. Wal-Mart gives health savings accounts (HSAs) to its new employees for as little as $11 per month and offers them as an option to existing employees. These high deductible plans have a dollar-for-dollar match from Wal-Mart. Unions hate HSAs because the account is controlled by the individual worker, not by the union, which could otherwise deduct fees and negotiate sweetheart deals. Any Wal-Mart “associate” — full- or part-time — can become eligible for company health benefits.
Wal-Mart also offers a 4% match on its 401(k) plan. In Maryland, the site of much recent anti-Wal-Mart activity, the average hourly wage for a full-time associate is $10.26, nearly double the current federal minimum wage. This represents an annual salary of $20,520 per year. That seems like a good deal for a low-skilled worker employed by a company whose business model relies on low-cost inputs to produce low prices for consumers — all without union “help.”
‘Justice for Janitors’
SEIU has a second corporate campaign that is directed against an entire industry — janitorial services. There is nothing indirect about “Justice for Janitors” (justiceforjanitors.org). It is explicitly tied to SEIU. Its purpose is less to smear the employer than to highlight the SEIU brand name. The union sees low-income workers, especially low-wage Hispanics, as prime targets for its own union drive.
Justice for Janitors is a 20-year marketing campaign by SEIU to convince workers to sign card-check authorization cards and unionize facilities. In Cincinnati, for instance, the local campaign website makes no apologies for acknowledging that its goal is to win card-check elections — in which a federally-supervised, private ballot election is denied to workers and replaced by union-sponsored public petitions.
The organizers use slogans such as “Sí, se puede!” (Yes, it can be done!) and “Justicia!” (Justice!) to make an explicit appeal to Hispanics, the real targets of the campaign.
SEIU also has entered into an explicit alliance with trial lawyers for the Justice for Janitors campaign. It’s a common practice for trial lawyers to sue non-union employers on the grounds that overtime pay is not properly awarded. The real agenda of the trial lawyers is to get the employer to agree to a card-check campaign and neutrality. In exchange, the trial lawyers will make the lawsuit go away. These suits are little more than a protection money racket, and the Justice for Janitors campaign makes no bones about it.
One fascinating aspect of the Justice for Janitors campaign is the way it harkens back to the pre-World War II split between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL tried to organize workers employer by employer. The CIO, on the other hand, wanted to organize entire swaths of employers in a given industry. The two groups were at odds until 1955 when they merged to create the AFL-CIO.
Interestingly, the SEIU seems to favor the old CIO strategy, at least as it relates to janitors. SEIU’s goal is to use the Justice for Janitors campaign to initiate the city-wide unionization of employers of janitors.
‘Hotel Workers Rising’
One of the most effective recent corporate campaigns has been the effort of UNITE-HERE, which represents hotel and restaurant workers and other employees, against non-union hotel chains and franchises.
As with the Justice for Janitors campaign, “Hotel Workers Rising” doesn’t try to disguise its sources of support: Its website (hotelworkersrising.org) links to the UNITE-HERE website. It also provides a city-by-city guide showing visitors how to distinguish between unionized and non-unionized hotels. The website features an “official song” of the Hotel Workers Rising campaign with catchy 1970s-era soul music and lyrics that are clearly pro-union.
While the purpose of the corporate campaign is to malign non-union hotels, it sometimes veers off and attacks all hotels in the industry. Hotel Workers Rising is supposed to convince consumers that they should stay in unionized hotels, but sometimes the campaign seems to forget its own aim. Instead, hotels are accused of making “record profits,” and hotel work is deemed to be “unsafe,” leading to workplace-related injuries such as lower back pain and tendonitis. However, the campaign does not advertise the primary goal of UNITE-HERE — to win card-check campaigns and neutrality agreements.
UNITE-HERE laid the groundwork for this campaign over the past decade when it engineered a massive contract re-alignment. The union actually agreed to make contract concessions on wages and benefits in order to win one central demand: a common date — 2006 — when all hotel collective bargaining agreements were set to expire. UNITE-HERE was happy to give a break to an individual hotel franchise owner or a particular hotel chain in order to win their agreement to the provision that the contract would henceforth expire at the same time that the contracts for all other unionized hotels expired.
The result is that UNITE-HERE created a nationalized bargaining unit. UNITEHERE contracts with unionized hotels in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Waikiki and several other cities, and all the contracts expire in the same year. The union advantage? Hotels that employ both union and non-union workforces at different hotel locations faced a tough choice — either succumb to union demands for card check and neutrality at every one of their non-union hotels, or face a national boycott and a union corporate campaign that becomes a public relations nightmare. Even hotels that were not in a contract dispute could be caught up in the corporate smear campaign. Some of the hotels tried to bargain their way out of the deal by showing a willingness to give higher wages, better benefits and loosened work rules, but UNITE-HERE is more interested in card check elections and more dues-paying workers. It has shown that it is willing to let its own members down by agreeing to lower wages and fewer benefits in some individual hotels as long as the hotel owners agree to the common date for the expiration of their contract.
Many labor unions have undertaken efforts to put the “international” back in the international labor movement. Hungry for new members, they are looking overseas, and they have found it advantageous to combine a strategy of corporate campaigns with union organizing in foreign countries. Unlike the United States, most developing nations lack a highly mobile and educated workforce. In Central and South America and parts of Asia the workforce is beginning to look like ours did in the 1930s and 1940s. There is just enough wealth around that most people know that some people are rich and it’s not them. Unions figure that they can make inroads in these countries. What worked in Detroit and Chicago in the 1930s will work in developing nations today.
“Sweatshop Watch” is a UNITE-HERE campaign on behalf of hotel and restaurant employees along with the dwindling number of U.S. textile workers the union represents. It is notable for the many accusations it makes against nearly every major clothing retailer in the United States. Retailers typically purchase their finished goods from overseas factories, and Sweatshop Watch is eager to argue that these factories exploit their workers. You don’t have to do any research in international labor statistics to know that for UNITE-HERE a “sweatshop” is any factory in the U.S. or abroad whose workers are not unionized.
Another international-oriented corporate campaign is “Responsible Shopper,” which is a project of a nonprofit called Co-op America. The website (coopamerica.org) identifies a long list of companies that it alleges are bad international corporate citizens. Not surprisingly, the criteria for being a “responsible” corporation includes being welcoming to union organizers.
A third website — killercoke.org — is organized on behalf of the National Union of Food Industry Workers in Colombia, which claims to represent workers in Coca-Cola bottling plants there. This one asserts that bottled water kills people, that Coke is poisoning the Indian water supply, and that Coke murders international union organizers.
What Will It Take to Recover?
Unions represented 35% of private-sector workers in the 1950s. The number is down to 7.4% in 2007. The union-member worker is older than the typical worker, and that discrepancy is likely to increase even further. The percentage of union members in the private sector today is comparable to the percentage that existed 10 years before the New Deal. In other words, all the union gains made after Franklin Roosevelt became President have been erased. Because fewer members mean less income, unions have cut their costs and raised their dues, but it’s not enough. That’s why unions are resorting to corporate campaigns. They are a strategy born of desperation.
All corporate campaigns have a common refrain: Non-union companies exploit their workers. A typical campaign makes no mention of neutrality agreements or public card-check petitions. Instead, the company is demonized for a host of reasons in which the charge of “unfair labor conditions” is but one rotten egg in the carton. Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of the corporate campaign is to prepare the way for union organizing. Unions will sacrifice the wages and benefits of their existing members to get what they really want: more members paying more union dues.