Unions in the crosshairs

By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

"We'll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome in the State of South Carolina," Gov. Nikki Haley declared in her recent State of the State address. "I love that we are one of the least unionized states in the country. It is an economic development tool unlike any other."

While treating unions as pariahs, Haley celebrated corporations. During her speech she asked representatives of a dozen companies that have invested in the state to stand up and take a bow.

Haley's brazen expression of anti-union animus is a sign of the times. From statehouses and Congressional hearing rooms to corporate boardrooms and bankruptcy courts, organized labor is under attack. Union strength has been waning for many years as a result of structural changes in the economy and dysfunctional labor laws. Foes of unions are now acting aggressively to try to hasten that decline.

Last year, apologists for the effort to eradicate public sector collective bargaining rights in states like Wisconsin insisted that it was not an assault on unions in general. Yet these days private sector union members are in the crosshairs as well. Indiana, in the heart of the industrial Midwest, recently enacted a "right to work" law, the first state to take this deliberate step to weaken unions in more than a decade. Legislators in states such as South Carolina that are already in the "right to work" camp are considering bills that would make it even more difficult for unions to operate.

Meanwhile, in Congress, the House Oversight Committee recently held a hearing meant to give the inaccurate impression that unions are misusing dues money for political activity. Committee Chair Darrell Issa seems intent on hamstringing legitimate union political involvement at a time when corporate influence over politics is growing by leaps and bounds in the wake of the Citizens United ruling.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair John Kline, still furious over the Obama Administration's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, has warned that it may be necessary to "overhaul" the National Labor Relations Act (Labor Relations Week, 2/8/2012), undoubtedly in a way very different from labor's unsuccessful push for an Employee Free Choice Act.

Overt anti-unionism is not limited to the maneuvers of conservative politicians. Major employers are taking their own steps to undermine collective bargaining. As the New York Times has pointed out, companies are making unprecedented use of lockouts, while strikes have become exceedingly rare. More than 1,300 workers at seven American Crystal Sugar plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa have been locked out for more than five months, while 1,000 union members at a Cooper Tire & Rubber plant in Findlay, Ohio have been in the same situation since late November. Across the border in Ontario, U.S.-based Caterpillar Inc. locked out 450 workers at a locomotive plant and then shut down the facility.

Other employers are trying to avoid strongholds of organized workers. For example, transnational grain exporter EGT has been trying to sidestep the Longshore union and use scab labor at its Longview port in Washington State.

Unions are also under assault in the bankruptcy courts, where companies are making strategic use of Chapter 11 filings. Hostess Brands, Inc., maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, is seeking court approval to rid itself of 296 collective bargaining agreements with 141 Teamster locals and 35 locals of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. At the same time, American Airlines is seeking to use the bankruptcy process to gut its union contracts through massive layoffs, termination of pension plans and decimation of health coverage.

Unions have been far from passive in responding to the onslaught, but high rates of unemployment make it difficult for them to maintain a very militant posture. After charging that Boeing was engaging in anti-union retaliation by expanding its Dreamliner production in South Carolina rather than in Washington State, the Machinists struck a deal in which the company was able to maintain its facility in the right-to-work state while agreeing to use union members in the Seattle area for another new aircraft. The CWA suspended its strike against Verizon last summer without getting a new contract but has kept up a campaign against the company's demands for severe contract concessions. The UFCW is once again trying to organize workers at Wal-Mart, but the union is putting much of its energy into building an employee association not designed to engage in collective bargaining.

What passes for good news in labor circles is the recent announcement by the Labor Department that the number of U.S. workers represented by a union held steady in 2011 rather than declining. Union membership in the private sector as a whole also remained unchanged at 6.9 percent.

One of the many reasons to hope that the economic recovery builds some real momentum is that it would greatly improve the prospects for a revived labor movement capable of beating back the deunionization agenda and putting a brake on economic polarization.