Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Homestead Strike Of 1892-- Unionbusting Then And Now


I mentioned a few days ago that I've been watching the History Channel series, The Men Who Built America. It's very slanted towards a capitalist view of history-- with idiotic interruptions commentary by modern day robber barons and financial predators "job creators" like Donald Trump, Steve Case and Jack Walsh. And the History Channel has blocked YouTube and Vimeo embedding. The episode about the pathology of Randian capitalism can only be watched on their site, here.

Thursday, also in regard to that episode, we looked specifically at how spoiled, self-entitled billionaire robber barons caused thousands of deaths in the Johnstown Flood of 1889 and how none were ever held accountable. The main culprit there, Henry Frick-- America's most hated plutocrat, the Koch brother of his day-- soon after hired a private militia to murder striking steelworkers he had locked out of Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel Works near Pittsburgh. Frick started by trying to break the union with scabs and then hired the Pinkertons, a fascist militia-for-hire specializing in murdering union workers. The Pinkertons fired randomly into the workers and killed and wounded dozens.

Widespread public support for the strikers evaporated when an anarchist with no relation to the union whatsoever, tried to assassinate Frick-- who he managed to shoot and stab but, alas, not kill. The union was broken and Carnegie Steel remained a non-union bastion for 40 years. So why bring this up again-- aside from the fact it's on TV? Robert Reich explains in a video that, unfortunately, is not on TV:

This election, he argues, is "not merely Republicans versus Democrats, or conservatives versus liberals. The larger battle is between regressives and progressives." And the regressives, having completely taken over the Republican Party and having made gigantic inroads in the corrupt Democratic Party Establishment, sense now is their time-- that they can win the whole ball of wax by electing Romney-Ryan, capturing the Senate and holding the House.
Regressives want to take this nation backward-- to before Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicare; before civil rights and voting rights; before regulations designed to protect the environment, workers, consumers, and investors. They want to sabotage much of what this nation has achieved over the last century. And they’re out to do it by making the rich far richer, turning Americans against one another in competition for a smaller and smaller slice of the pie, substituting private morality for public morality, and opening the floodgates to big money in politics.

Progressives are determined to take this nation forward-- toward equal opportunity, tolerance and openness, adequate protection against corporate and Wall Street abuses, and an economy and democracy that are working for all of us.
Unions aren't always progressive-- to put it mildly-- and some are absolutely on the regressive side of the battlelines, especially the building trades unions. But there's no way forward for democracy or for a progressive vision of America without unions. And that's why Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the GOP, no less than Henry Frick, are trying to exterminate them. In his essential book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies About The Economy, Joshua Holland spends a lot of time talking about why unions are crucial and how Republicans are still trying to eliminate them.
In 2005, Harvard economist Richard Freeman found that more U.S. workers wanted to join a union than ever before-- 53 percent. It’s their right, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but even as the number of wage earners who want to bargain collectively with their bosses has increased, the labor movement’s steep decline has continued apace.

Corporate America has been fighting labor through lobbying and regulation, by shipping a disproportionate number of union jobs overseas and by dumping union positions in a steady wave of corporate mergers. Perhaps most important, they’ve also achieved it through a concerted campaign to convince America that despite the fact that joining a union results in an almost 30 percent boost in one’s wages and benefits, unions are in fact harmful to workers.

Companies that rely on cheap labor finance a broad network of innocuous sounding front-groups such as the Capital Research Center, the Public Service Research Foundation, and the Alliance for Worker Freedom that advocate for workers’ “right” to labor unencumbered by the extra pay and benefits that come with union membership. According to the pro-labor group American Rights at Work, the oldest of these, the National Right to Work Foundation, “employs over 200 staff to lobby, fundraise, distribute propaganda, and interfere with workers’ union organizing efforts, and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation employs nearly 50 staff for its litigation efforts.”

Arguably the most active of these propaganda shops, the Center for Union Facts, is a newcomer established in 2006 by lobbyist Richard Berman. Berman, who is reportedly proud of his nickname, “Doctor Death,” is an infamous right-wing corporate frontman with a long career muddying the waters of our public discourse for the sake of his well-heeled clientele. According to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, “Using his lobbying and consulting firm, Berman and Company, as a revenue vehicle for his activities, Berman runs at least 23 industry-funded projects,” such as the Employment Policy Institute, the Center for Consumer Freedom, the American Beverage Institute, and the Employee Freedom Action Committee. Through these, Berman, a veteran of the tobacco wars-- he was funded by Philip Morris in the 1990s-- fough against drunken driving laws on behalf of the alcoholic beverage industry, against consumer and health protections on behalf of the food industry, and even against efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of mercury for the fishing industry.

The Center for Union Facts is positively Orwellian in its spin. In one instance, Berman cited a Department of Labor report to claim that unions had racked up “$400 million in labor racketeering fines and civil restitution in the last five years.” Nate Newman, an expert on labor relations, dug into the report, only to find that “almost all of the big money associated with the $400 million figure in labor racketeering was committed by private industry against unions, not by union officials.”

Newman added, “But that’s how you lie with statistics.”

Throw around a word like “labor racketeering” while only talking about union officials and leave the impression that the crime only involves acts by unions, not acts where unions and their members are the victims.

That is the central message coming from the Corporate Right: unions are corrupt, perhaps even mobbed up, and their work helps only union bosses and their political patrons, while screwing over workers. The overarching strategic goal is to shift working America’s focus from what unions do-- negotiate with management on behalf of their dues-paying workers and advocate for stronger labor protections in Washington-- to the most dubious negative stereotypes about who labor activists are.

The reality, of course, is that the labor movement is not untarnished; it has its share of real-world problems. But while there was a time when corrupt organizers could easily get fat off workers’ dues, [the way Ronald Reagan did was he was a unionist who sold out to the bosses] today’s union activities are very closely regulated by the government. The thirty-year trend of loosening oversight of corporate America has been turned on end in the labor movement.

In 2005, the Financial Times reported that because union-sponsored campaigns against firms such as Wal-Mart were “a thorn in the side of big business,” George W. Bush’s Department of Labor was “turning the tables on these critics, using little-known powers to act as a regulator for the union movement.” Labor unions began to face “greater scrutiny of spending and hiring practices,” and audits of individual unions “increase[d] sharply.” According to the Hartford Courant, “virtually every dollar spent” by labor unions “and the time allocated by much of the staff, must find its way onto an expanded U.S. Department of Labor form-- and it must be placed in a category according to what type of activity it represents.” Union organizers told the Times that the efforts were “motivated by pressure from Corporate America to weaken the lobbying influence and financial power of organized labor.”

The justification for these onerous rules was corruption. The Right had seized on the story of a union-owned insurer, Ullico, that got caught in a stock-trading scandal that netted a few of its executives $6 million. Conservatives compared the scandal to the $60 billion that Enron stole through market manipulation, but as Nathan Newman told journalist David Sirota, “Out of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested by various union officials in different funds all over the country,” the best that conservatives could come up with were a couple of small but much-hyped scandals. “If anything,” he added, “the fact that [a few officials at] Ullico couldn’t even get away with stealing these relatively petty amounts speaks pretty well to union corporate accountability controls, controls obviously far better than the corporations plunged into bankruptcy because of money gone and unrecoverable.”

Rick Berman and his ilk set the public stage for the Corporate Right’s war on organized labor, but comprehensive, company-by-company union busting is what ultimately keeps many U.S. workplaces union-free, despite the fact that a majority of working people want to join up.

Having lobbied hard for sweeping changes in U.S. labor law-- and the enforcement of those laws-- corporate America has raised union busting to a high art form in the United States. Companies no longer need thugs and gun-toting Pinkertons to keep workers from exercising their legal right to organize; now they have high-priced, Armani-wearing lawyers to do the job.

According to American Rights at Work, the majority of companies that face a union vote hire a “union avoidance firm” to fight for a “no” vote, but most workers don’t know it, because modern union busters prefer to operate under the radar.
Unionbusters often provide material and instructions behind the scenes while the employer’s management and middle-management/supervisory staff carry out the actual communications with workers. In this way, the unionbuster does not deal directly with employees and, as a result, may avoid having to disclose financial reports about such activity to the U.S. Department of Labor. The unionbuster’s name or firm is not used or referenced in the anti-union materials distributed to employees, further masking the unionbuster’s involvement in orchestrating the anti-organizing campaign. More importantly, the anti-union company is rarely called on to divulge that it hired a unionbuster or reveal the specifics of such expenditures. Therefore, without a paper trail, unionbusters are hard to detect, underreported, and not in the public eye.
According to journalist Art Levine, union busting has “become a multibillion-dollar industry encompassing more than 2,500 lawyers and consultants offering their services.” Levine went undercover to attend a seminar conducted by one of the leaders in the field, the Jackson Lewis law firm, where two attorneys warned prospective clients that organized labor would “attempt to destroy you, no matter how good you are.” Levine recalled some of the questions the attendees posed to the union busters:
What if we simply wanted to fire union organizers? That was possible to do, said [Michael] Stief, as long as you were careful to do so for other reasons. “Union sympathizers aren’t entitled to any more protection than other workers,” he explained. But the firing could not be linked to their union activity.

What if we felt like saying a lot of anti-union stuff to our workers? Lotito introduced a segment called “You Can Say It.” Could we tell our workers, for instance, that a union had held a strike at a nearby facility only to find that all the strikers had been replaced-- and that the same could happen to the employees here? Sure, said [Michael] Lotito. “It’s lawful.” He added, “What happens if this statement is a lie? They didn’t have another strike, there were no replacements? It’s still lawful: The labor board doesn’t really care if people are lying.”
The tactics they employ are as pervasive as they are insidious. A study by Cornell University labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner found that nine in ten employers facing a union campaign force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear antiunion propaganda; 80 percent train supervisors on how to attack unions and require them to deliver antiunion messages to workers they oversee; half of employers threaten to shut down the plant if workers organize; and three out of four hire outside consultants to run antiunion campaigns, “often based on mass psychology and distorting the law.”

Increasingly, cunning forms of intimidation are enough to produce a “no” vote. If organizers manage to win a vote among workers, management can dispute the results, a process that can drag on for years. While it’s pending, pro-union workers lose their jobs; a study published by economists John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer found that “almost one in five union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign.”

That’s illegal, but since the Reagan administration, U.S. labor protections have been thoroughly gutted, and companies that cross the line pay only modest penalties that can be written off as part of the cost of emaining union-free.

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At 4:39 PM, Blogger Mark Lewis said...

Agreed, I was reading about the Johnstown flood and had an idea if that event led to the rise of Unions and strikes. This is not a war against Democrats and Republicans, it is a class war. The ones who have the capital will do their best to oppress and keep what they have stolen through wage theft. Cheers!


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