History of union busting in the United States
Hiring agencies specializing in anti-union practices has been an option available to employers from the bloody strikes of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, until today.
Creative methods of union busting have been around for a long time. In 1907, Morris Friedman reported that a Pinkerton agent who had infiltrated the Western Federation of Miners managed to gain control of a strike relief fund, and attempted to exhaust that union's treasury by awarding lavish benefits to strikers. However, many attacks against unions have used brute force of one sort or another.
Unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were devastated by the Palmer Raids, carried out as part of the First Red Scare. The Everett Massacre (also known as Bloody Sunday) was an armed confrontation between local authorities and Industrial Workers of the World members which took place in Everett, Washington on Sunday, November 5, 1916. Later, communist-led unions were isolated or destroyed, and their activists purged with the assistance of other union organizations, during the Second Red Scare.
For approximately 150 years, union organizing efforts and strikes have been periodically opposed by police, security forces, National Guard units, special police forces such as the Coal and Iron Police, and/or use of the United States Army. Significant incidents have included the Haymarket Riot and the Ludlow massacre. The Homestead struggle of 1892, the Pullman walkout of 1894, and the Colorado Labor Wars of 1903 are examples of unions destroyed or significantly damaged by the deployment of military force. In all three examples, a strike became the triggering event.
Following a walk out of subway workers, management of Interborough Rapid Transit in New York City appealed to university students to volunteer as motormen, conductors, ticket sellers and ticket choppers. Stephen Norword discusses the phenomenon of students as strikebreakers in early 20th Century North America: "Throughout the period between 1901 and 1923, college students represented a major, and often critically important source of strikebreakers in a wide range of industries and services. (–) Collegians deliberately volunteered their services as strikebreakers and were the group least likely to be swayed by the pleas of strikers and their sympathizers that they were doing something wrong."
There were a significant number of strikes during the 1890s and very early 1900s. Strikebreaking by recruiting massive numbers of replacement workers became a significant activity.
Jack Whitehead saw opportunity in labor struggles; while other workers were attempting to organize unions, he walked away from his union to organize an army of strikebreakers. Whitehead was the first to be called "King of the Strike Breakers"; by deploying his private workforce during strikes of steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Birmingham, Alabama, he became wealthy. By demonstrating how lucrative strikebreaking could be, Whitehead inspired a host of imitators.
After Whitehead, men like James A. Farley and Pearl Bergoff turned union busting into a substantial industry. Farley began his strikebreaking career in 1895, and opened a detective agency in New York City in 1902. In addition to detective work, Farley accepted industrial assignments, specializing in breaking strikes of streetcar drivers. Farley hired his men based in part upon courage and toughness, and in some strikes they openly carried firearms. They were paid more than the strikers had been. Farley was credited with a string of successful strikebreaking actions, employing hundreds, and sometimes thousands of strikebreakers. Farley was sometimes paid as much as three hundred thousand dollars for breaking a strike, and by 1914 he had taken in more than ten million dollars. Farley claimed that he had defeated thirty-five strikes in a row. But he suffered from tuberculosis, and as he faced death, he declared that he turned down the job of breaking a streetcar strike in Philadelphia because this time, "the strikers were in the right."
Pearl Bergoff also began his strikebreaking career in New York City, working as a spotter on the Metropolitan Street Railway in Manhattan. His job was to watch conductors, making certain that they recorded all of the fares that they accepted. In 1905 Bergoff started the Vigilant Detective Agency of New York. Within two years his brothers joined the lucrative business, and the name was changed to the Bergoff Brothers Strike Service and Labor Adjusters. Bergoff's early strikebreaking actions were characterized by extreme violence. A 1907 strike of garbage cart drivers resulted in numerous confrontations between strikers and the strikebreakers, even when protected by police escorts. Strikers sometimes pelted the strikebreakers with rocks, bottles, and bricks launched from tenement rooftops.
In 1909, the Pressed Steel Car Company at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania fired forty men, and eight thousand employees representing sixteen nationalities walked out under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World. Bergoff's agency hired strikebreaking toughs from the Bowery, and shipped vessels filled with unsuspecting immigrant workers directly into the strike zone. Other immigrant strikebreakers were delivered in boxcars, and were not fed during a two-day period. Later they worked, ate, and slept in a barn with two thousand other men. Their meals consisted of cabbage and bread.
There were violent confrontations between strikers and strikebreakers, but also between strikebreakers and guards when the terrified workers demanded the right to leave. An Austro-Hungarian immigrant who managed to escape told his government that workers were being held against their will, resulting in an international incident. In addition to kidnapping, strikebreakers complained of deception, broken promises about wages, and tainted food.
During federal hearings, Bergoff explained that "musclemen" under his employ would "get... any graft that goes on", suggesting that was to be expected "on every big job." Other testimony indicated that Bergoff's "right-hand man", described as "huge in stature, weighing perhaps 240 pounds", surrounded himself with thirty-five guards who intimidated and fleeced the strikebreakers, locking them into a boxcar prison with no sanitation facilities when they defied orders.
At the end of August a gun battle erupted, leaving six dead, six dying, and fifty wounded. Public sympathy began to swing away from the company, and toward the strikers. Early in September the company acknowledged defeat and negotiated with the strikers. Twenty-two had died in the strike. But Bergoff's business wasn't hurt by the defeat; he boasted of having as many as ten thousand strikebreakers on his payroll. He was getting paid as much as two million dollars per strikebreaking job.
Unlike the American Federation of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World opposed the First World War. The American Protective League (APL) was a pro-war organization formed by wealthy Chicago businessmen. At the height of its power the APL had 250,000 members in 600 cities. In 1918, documents from the APL showed that ten percent of its efforts (the largest of any category) were focused on disrupting the activities of the IWW. The APL burgled and vandalized IWW offices, and harassed IWW members. Such actions were illegal, yet were supported by the Wilson administration.
Strikebreaking by hiring massive numbers of tough opportunists began to lose favor in the 1920s; there were fewer strikes, resulting in fewer opportunities. By the 1930s, agencies began to rely more upon the use of informants and labor spies.
Spy agencies hired to bust unions developed a level of sophistication that could devastate targets. "Missionaries" were undercover operatives trained to use whispering campaigns or unfounded rumors to create dissension on the picket lines and in union halls. The strikers themselves were not the only targets. For example, female missionaries might systematically visit the strikers' wives in the home, relating a sob story of how a strike had destroyed their own families. Missionary campaigns have been known to destroy not only strikes, but unions themselves.
In the 1930s, the Pinkerton Agency employed twelve hundred labor spies, and nearly one-third of them held high level positions in the targeted unions. The International Association of Machinists was damaged when Sam Brady, a veteran Pinkerton operative, held a high enough position in that union that he was able to precipitate a premature strike. All but five officers in a United Auto Workers local in Lansing, Michigan were driven out by Pinkerton agents. The five who remained were Pinkertons. At the Underwood Elliott-Fisher Company plant, the union local was so badly injured by undercover operatives that membership dropped from more than twenty five hundred to fewer than seventy-five.
Meanwhile, employers began to demand more subtle and sophisticated union busting tactics, and so the field called "preventive labor relations" was born. The new practitioners were armed with degrees in industrial psychology, management, and labor law. They would use these skills not only to manipulate the provisions of national labor law, but also the emotions of workers seeking to unionize.
After passage of the Wagner Act, the first nationally known union busting agency was Labor Relations Associates of Chicago, Inc. (LRA). LRA was led by Nathan Shefferman, who produced a guide to union busting, and has been considered the –founding father– of the modern union avoidance industry. Shefferman had been a member of the original NLRB, and became director of employee relations at Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Company. Sears had been engaged in blocking unions from the retail industry throughout the 1930s. The chain had "carried out a particularly vicious, ongoing war with the Teamsters union." Sears provided $10,000 seed money to launch LRA.
By the late 1940s, LRA had nearly 400 clients. Shefferman's operatives set up anti-union employee groups called "Vote No" committees, developed ruses to identify pro-union workers, and helped arrange sweetheart contracts with unions that would not challenge management. Consultants from LRA "committed numerous illegal actions, including bribery, coercion of employees and racketeering."
Shefferman built "a daunting business on a foundation of false premises", of which "perhaps the most incredible–and most widely believed–is the myth that companies are at a disadvantage to unions organizationally, legally, and financially during a union-organizing drive." What businesses sought to accomplish through such propaganda was for Congress to amend the Wagner Act.
In 1956, Nathan Shefferman crushed a unionizing effort of the Retail Clerks Union at seven Boston-area stores by employing tactics that Walter Tudor, the Sears vice-president for personnel, described as "inexcusable, unnecessary and disgraceful." At a Marion, Ohio, Whirlpool plant, an LRA operative created a card file system which tracked employees' feelings about unions. Many of those he regarded as pro-union were fired. A similar practice took place at the Morton Frozen Foods plant in Webster City, Iowa. An employee recruited by LRA operatives wrote down a list of employees thought to favor a union. Management fired those workers. The list-making employee received a substantial pay increase. When the United Packinghouse Workers of America union was defeated, Shefferman arranged a sweetheart contract with a union that Morton Frozen Foods controlled, with no participation from the workers. From 1949 through 1956, LRA earned nearly $2.5 million dollars providing such anti-union services.
In 1957, the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management (also known as the McClellan Committee) investigated unions for corruption, and employers and agencies for union busting activities. Labor Relations Associates was found to have committed violations of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, including manipulating union elections through bribery and coercion, threatening to revoke workers' benefits if they organized, installing union officers who were sympathetic to management, rewarding employees who worked against the union, and spying on and harassing workers. The McClellan Committee believed that "the National Labor Relations Board [was] impotent to deal with Shefferman's type of activity."
There is little evidence that employers availed themselves of anti-union services during the 1960s or the early 1970s. However, under a new reading of the Landrum-Griffin Act, the Department of Labor took action against consulting agencies related to filing of required reports in only three cases after 1966, and between 1968 and 1974 it filed no actions at all. By the late 1970s, consulting agencies had stopped filing reports.
The 1970s and 1980s were an altogether more hostile political and economic climate for organized labor. Meanwhile a new breed of union buster, with degrees in industrial psychology, management, and labor law, proved skilled at sidestepping requirements of both the National Labor Relations Act and Landrum-Griffin. In the 1970s the number of consultants, and the scope and sophistication of their activities, increased substantially. As the numbers of consultants increased, the numbers of unions suffering NLRB setbacks also increased. Labor's percentage of election wins slipped from 57 percent to 46 percent. The number of union decertification elections tripled, with a 73 percent loss rate for unions.
Labor relations consulting firms began providing seminars on union avoidance strategies in the 1970s. Agencies moved from subverting unions to screening out union sympathizers during hiring, indoctrinating workforces, and propagandizing against unions.
By the mid-1980s, Congress had investigated, but failed to regulate, abuses by labor relations consulting firms. Meanwhile, while some anti-union employers continued to rely upon the tactics of persuasion and manipulation, other besieged firms launched blatantly aggressive anti-union campaigns. Although the general direction of professional union busting has been toward greater subtlety, strike-bound employers have turned once again to agencies that supply replacement workers, and professional security firms whose operatives "have proved to be little more than thugs." At the dawn of the 21st Century, methods of union busting have recalled similar tactics from the dawn of the 20th Century.
The Railway Labor Act of 1926 was the first major piece of labor legislation passed by Congress. The RLA was amended in 1936 to expand from railroads and cover the emerging airline industry. At UPS, the mechanics, dispatchers, and pilots are the labor groups that are covered by the RLA. It was enacted because Railroad management wanted to keep the trains moving by putting an end to –wildcat– strikes. Railroad workers wanted to make sure they had an opportunity to organize, be recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent in dealing with a company, negotiate new agreements and enforce existing ones. Under the RLA, agreements do not have expiration dates; instead they have amendable dates which are indicated within the agreement.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), often referred to as the Wagner Act, was passed by Congress July 5, 1935. It established the right to organize unions. The Wagner Act was the most important labor law in American history and earned the nickname "labor's bill of rights." It forbade employers from engaging in five types of labor practices: interfering with or restraining employees exercising their right to organize and bargain collectively; attempting to dominate or influence a labor union; refusing to bargain collectively and in "good faith" with unions representing their employees; and, finally, encouraging or discouraging union membership through any special conditions of employment or through discrimination against union or non-union members in hiring. Before the law, employers had liberty to spy upon, question, punish, blacklist, and fire union members. In the 1930s workers began to organize in large numbers. A great wave of work stoppages in 1933 and 1934 included citywide general strikes and factory occupations by workers. Hostile skirmishes erupted between workers bent on organizing unions, and the police and hired security squads backing the interests of factory owners who hated unionizing. Some historians maintain that Congress enacted the NLRA primarily to help stave off even more serious – potentially revolutionary – labor unrest. Arriving at a time when organized labor had nearly lost faith in Roosevelt, the Wagner Act required employers to acknowledge labor unions that were favored by a majority of their work forces. The Act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with oversight over union elections and unfair labor practices by employers.
The Taft-Hartley Act  was a major revision of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act) and represented the first major revision of a New Deal act passed by a post-war Congress. In the mid-term elections of 1946, the Republican Party won control of the upcoming Eightieth Congress, gaining majorities in both houses for the first time since 1931. On June 23, 1947, the Republican-controlled Congress passed, over President Truman's veto, the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 The Taft-Hartley Act widely interpreted as anti-labor. Labor leaders dubbed it a "slave labor" bill and twenty-eight Democratic members of Congress declared it a "new guarantee of industrial slavery."
|–||Management always had the upper hand, of course; they had never lost it. But thanks to Taft-Hartley, the bosses could once again wage their war with near impunity.||–|
Taft-Hartley Act established unfair labor practices which can be charged against unions and employers. It allows specific "employer rights" which broadens an employer's arsenal during union organizing drives. It bans the closed shop, in which union membership is a precondition of employment at an organized workplace. It encouraged state "right to work" laws which prohibit mandatory union dues. It perpetuated red baiting. It gave management new weapons, while restricting fundamental union activities. For a time, Taft-Hartley instituted anti-communist loyalty oaths for union officers.
Presidents have invoked the Taft-Hartley Act thirty-five times in attempts to halt work stoppages in labor disputes. All but two of those attempts were successful.
The Landrum Griffin Act of 1959 is also known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) defined financial reporting requirements for both unions and management organizations. Pursuant to LMRDA Section 203(b) employers are required to disclose the costs of any persuader activity as it regards consultants and potential bargaining unit employees.
Martin Levitt's interpretation is as follows:
The law regulates labor unions' internal affairs and union officials' relationships with employers. But the law also required companies to report certain expenditures related to their anti-union activities. Fortunately for union busters, loopholes in the requirements allow management and their agents to ignore the provisions aimed at reforming their behavior. The loopholes require consultants to file if they communicate with employees either for the purpose of persuading them not to join a union, or to gain knowledge about the employees or the union that may be passed on to the employer. However, most consultants accomplish these goals by indirect means, using supervisors and management as their first line of contact with employees. Even before the Act was passed, labor consultants had identified front-line supervisors as the most effective lobbyists for management.
Landrum-Griffin also seeks to prevent consultants from spying on employees or the union. Information isn't to be compiled unless it is for the purpose of a specific legal proceeding. According to Martin Levitt, "It is easy for consultants to use this provision as a cover for "all kinds of information gathering."
According to Martin Levitt, "because of Landrum-Griffin's vague language, attorneys are able to directly interfere in the union-organizing process without any reporting requirements. Therefore, "young lawyers run bold anti-union wars and dance all over Landrum-Griffin." The provisions of Landrum-Griffin allowing special rights for lawyers resulted in labor consultants working under the shield of labor attorneys, allowing them to easily evade the intent of the law."
Martiin Levitt stated:
|–||With the help of our trusted attorneys, our anti-union activities were carried out [under Landrum-Griffin] in backstage secrecy; meanwhile we gleefully showcased every detail of union finances that could be twisted into implications of impropriety or incompetence.||–|
During the period from roughly 1910 to 1914, Robert Hoxie compiled a list of methods used by employers' associations to attack unions. The list was published in 1921, as part of the book Trade Unionism in the United States:
Hoxie summarized the underlying theories, assumptions, and attitudes of employers' associations of the period. These include the supposition that employers' interests are always identical to society's interests, such that unions should be condemned when they interfere; that the employers' interests are always harmonious with the workers' interests, and unions therefore try to mislead workers; that workers should be grateful to employers, and are therefore ungrateful and immoral when they join unions; that the business is solely the employer's to manage; that unions are operated by non-employees, and they are therefore necessarily outsiders; that unions restrict the right of employees to work when, where, and how they wish; and that the law, the courts, and the police represent absolute and impartial rights and justice, and therefore unions are to be condemned when they violate the law or oppose the police.
Given the proliferation of employers' associations created primarily for the purpose of opposing unions, Hoxie poses counter-questions. For example, if every employer has a right to manage his own business without interference from outside workers, then why hasn't a group of workers at a particular company the right to manage their own affairs without interference from outside employers?
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