Obnoxiousness is a universal human trait. But for unions, it’s a tool of persuasion. Large employers, with good reason, are wary. A new paper from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Hardball: The Tactics of Union Corporate Campaigns,” summarizes organized labor’s frequently aggressive, predatory shakedown tactics in the search to win concessions from supposedly morally errant employers. These campaigns, which seek to discredit a targeted firm’s brand name in hopes of winning concessions, involve extensive groundwork; these campaigns can last for years. Unions and their allies test the legal limits of protest, while raising the costs of business. Undeterred by reality, certain lawmakers on Capitol Hill, led by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., are sponsoring bills to repeal safeguards against such behavior.
Corporate campaigns are no stranger to Union Corruption Update (see here, here and here). These projects of confrontation and negotiation took off during the Seventies, a decade when union officials began to see great value in forming alliances with community and nonprofit groups well-versed in New Left ideology and tactics. The term “corporate campaign” seems relatively benign. In practice, however, it is anything but that. Highly inflammatory and threatening behavior against a targeted corporation isn’t just a feature of such campaigns; it is the defining feature. The goal is to persuade the company to cease practices that allegedly are harmful to the larger society. In the course of their work, labor and other activists may threaten company executives and board members with potentially embarrassing details about their personal lives. The aim is to get the company to fear a loss of customers and business partners to the point where it settles out of court on less than favorable terms. Union activists, working in concert with civil rights, religious, antiwar, environmental and other groups, mobilize public opposition. A campaign, in essence, is a multi-pronged attack on a company’s reputation and brand name. Common tactics include demonstrations, boycotts, media outreach, pamphlets, lawsuits and shareholder resolutions.
These tactics, by intent and result, disrupt company operations. To the extent unions are involved, they often facilitate organizing drives. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for one, has conducted menacing campaigns against Wackenhut Services, a subsidiary of the U.K.-based Group 4 Securicor, and Sodexo USA, the American subsidiary of French-based food and janitorial service conglomerate Sodexo. The Wackenhut campaign, which induced the company to file a racketeering suit against the union, which had spread unfounded rumors that G4S was lax in providing basic security and safety at U.S. military bases. The Sodexo campaign, which lasted during 2009-11, employed tactics such as blackmail, trespassing onto school properties with Sodexo-serviced cafeterias, and spreading rumors about health and safety threats. The abuse moved the company to file a federal racketeering suit against the union, which resulted in a confidential settlement six months later. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), another veteran of corporate campaigns, for years had gone after pork processor Smithfield Foods as part of an effort to unionize a company plant in North Carolina. Activists used picketing, boycotting, leafleting and media event-staging to make their point. As in the cases of Wackenhut and Sodexo, the company filed a racketeering suit. The UFCW and management eventually reached a settlement. Other employers feeling the tender mercies of union pressure in recent years include Bashas’ Supermarkets, Pulte Homes Inc., Tesla Motors and Walmart.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce long has been a prominent critic of such activism. Its “Hardball” monograph is the latest manifestation of this concern. Corporate campaigns, as the authors note, typically bypass standard union organizing strategies. Instead of building support from workers themselves, these campaigns “seek to impose recognition from the top down by forcing management into giving unions valuable organizing concessions not guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.” Indeed, confrontational tactics going beyond card checks, neutrality agreements and other common organizing tactics, are outright illegal under the act. NLRA Sections 8(b)(4) and 8(e), for example, bar a union from organizing pickets, strikes, boycotts and other forms of pressure against an employer with whom the union does not have a labor dispute. Were such “secondary” actions legal, corporate targets would be constantly exposed to frivolous lawsuits based on guilt by association. Yet union activists and their partners often engage in this practice anyway.
Unions and their allies, contemptuous of such legal strictures, remain determined to darken the reputation of companies they feel are bad corporate citizens, whether or not the aberrant behavior is connected to allegations of unfair labor practices. And these activists are resourceful. The Chamber of Commerce study identifies 11 distinct campaign tactics, often used in tandem, to disrupt a company’s operations. They are: 1) undermining client and customer relationships; 2) damaging the target’s reputation with meritless government complaints; 3) provoking and intimidating target companies; 4) sending ‘letter bombs’; 5) putting up disparaging posters; 6) hiring ‘flash mobs’ to trespass on company facilities; 7) sending union activists to make unannounced visits to worksites in order to create a basis for filing unfair labor practice suits (a practice known as salting); 8) engaging in violence; 9) manufacturing alleged safety hazards; 10) disrupting business with technology; and 11) damaging public relations through sham organizations. A summary of just a few of these methods should underscore the obnoxious and criminal nature of corporate campaigns.
Undermining client and customer relationships. This is a frequent and effective way of inducing a company’s capitulation because the company is especially at the mercy of the activists if it wants to stay in business. The report uses the Sodexo campaign as its leading case. The aforementioned civil RICO suit filed by the company indicated that the Service Employees International Union had vowed that its “threats, intimidation, smears and other attacks would never stop” unless Sodexo consented to union demands. Moreover, the SEIU promised to create an “echo chamber” of allied groups and to “go after Sodexo’s clients.” These problems could disappear, the union emphasized, if the company agreed to its demands. A Mafia enforcer couldn’t have put it any better. After Sodexo declined SEIU’s “requests” for a card check (as opposed to a secret ballot election) for the purpose of achieving union representation, the union unleashed an all-out assault on the company brand name, swarming its institutional customers – hospitals, colleges and schools – with aggressive disruptions. In one instance, union activists infiltrated a Sodexo-hosted medical conference and threw plastic roaches onto the food.
Damaging the target’s reputation with meritless government complaints. Often, a union and its allied activists use legal and regulatory pressure as “incentives” for an employer to capitulate to demands. The report cites a case of the Service Employees International Union’s decades-long Justice for Janitors campaign (see photo). In the cited instance, union activists bullied a Texas-based cleaning company, Professional Janitorial Service (PJS), into recognizing an SEIU-driven card check (as opposed to a secret ballot election) by blitzing the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division with allegations of workplace violations. Of the more than 40 charges, all but one wound up either being resolved in the company’s favor or withdrawn by the union. The bad publicity resulting from the charges, however, served the union’s purpose, enabling it to launch a media campaign to tar the reputation of PJS, which caused the company to lose business to unionized contractors. The company, however, did file suit in Texas alleging defamation, tortious interference and business disparagement. Its refusal to back down paid off; the company eventually won judgments totaling $7.8 million.
Sending out ‘flash mobs’ to trespass on company property. One of the more noxious tactics of corporate campaigns is organizing dozens of demonstrators, whether paid or unpaid, for the purpose of paying unannounced visits to a targeted business for the purpose of creating a loud, prolonged disturbance. These scenes can be indoors or outdoors, and can be especially effective with the use of smart phones and social media. Retailers are especially vulnerable to this tactic. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is one of the leaders of this field, as Walmart has found out these past several years. In a number of states, UFCW activists and a “worker center” affiliate, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), have conducted a highly visible nationwide campaign to induce the retailer to surrender to union demands. These mobs have engaged in such attention-seeking activities as singing, dancing, blocking customer traffic and speaking through bullhorns. A California court concluded that protests on Walmart properties in that state constituted illegal trespassing. The union and its supporters, noted the court, engaged in acts such as “blocking ingress and egress and aisle ways and customers’ mobility inside the store, littering balloons and flyers throughout stores, and blowing air horns, screaming and conducting flash mobs.” A court of appeals upheld the verdict.
There is much more in this report to indicate that many unions, well-funded and well-networked, are engaging in systematic intimidation and defamation of corporations. At least targeted companies have the means of fighting back and negotiating on a level playing field. The damage is real, and the company’s legal bills are expensive, but legal recourse is available. Some of the other cases described in the monograph, such as the Bashas’ supermarket chain in Arizona, didn’t turn out too well for a company. But federal law does provide due process for accused companies.
Unfortunately, certain lawmakers on the far Left want to remove these protections. A pair of bills now before Congress would amend or repeal portions of the National Labor Relations Act to give unions maximum leeway in conducting corporate campaigns and would all but eliminate due process for employers and non-joining employees. The Workplace Democracy Act (S. 2810, H.R. 5728), introduced in May by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., among other things, would repeal state Right to Work laws across the nation, authorize unions to conduct secondary boycotts against companies doing business with an alleged primary offender, and make it far easier for unions to sue employers. The Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act (S. 3064, H.R. 6080), introduced in June by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., among other things, would authorize secondary boycotts, repeal state Right to Work laws, and blacklist federal contractors from procurement opportunities over allegations of workplace violations even if the accusers are unable to show any proof of wrongdoing. “If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class,” said Sen. Sanders in introducing the Workplace Democracy Act, “we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka couldn’t have spelled out the motive more plainly. It’s hard to determine which is more offensive – the bills’ contents or their pretense of having anything to do with “democracy” or “freedom.”
Corporate campaigns inevitably involve lawbreaking. Their organizers not only behave in ways not authorized by the National Labor Relations Act, but also in ways that brazenly violate the act. While the NLRA unfortunately contains longstanding features that grant unions monopoly power, it also has provided for more than 80 years a sensible framework for adjudicating labor disputes and preventing disputes from turning violent. The Chamber of Commerce properly notes that one of the basic purposes of the Act is to promote the “free flow of commerce.” Various unions and their allied street ruffians, needless to say, don’t think much of commerce. Indeed, they seek to inhibit its flow whenever union interests are at risk. Lawmakers should be focused on limiting, not expanding, the operating room of these “campaigns.”