Years ago, when a boss wanted to break up a union he would send in some muscle. The idea was to “educate” workers by cracking a few heads, thereby demonstrating that membership in a trade union might be hazardous to one’s personal welfare.
These days, executives dislike unions as much as ever, but industrial warfare has become far more genteel. The goon squads are gone, replaced by armies of attorneys and consultants who work overtime to defeat unions by stretching the limits of the law–and sometimes by breaking it outright.
Workers supposedly have the right to choose whether or not to join unions in free, democratic elections. Currently, unions win about half of all scheduled representation elections. That record would be far better if it weren’t for management consultants who manipulate the process. “These guys,” said a veteran union official at a conference I attended a few years ago, “are like the Gestapo–with briefcases.”
Marty Levitt spent 20 years as a briefcase-wielding field commander in management’s war against organized labor. In 1988, racked by alcoholism, a disintegrating personal life, and a guilty conscience, Levitt came in from the cold. He quit the union-busting business and hit the lecture circuit to denounce his former colleagues. As a recovering alcoholic, Levitt is committed to confronting the inner demons that led him to drink in the first place. His book Confessions of a Union Buster is, in part, his attempt to exorcise a past he is not particularly proud of by laying it open for public inspection. The result is a fast-moving, illuminating account of a little-known branch of industrial espionage–the extraordinary measures that managers will take to prevent workers from voting in favor of union representation.
I’ve spent most of the past ten years as a researcher, writer, and publicist for organized labor. From my point of view, Levitt’s book is a rare opportunity to peek behind enemy lines. As a practicing propagandist, a large part of my job is to claim the moral high ground for my side, while depicting our opponents as greedy, uncaring, and corrupt. According to Levitt, every horrible thing I ever thought, wrote, or imagined about corporate executives and their high-priced consultants is true–and then some.
“Union busting is a field populated by bullies and built on deceit,” writes Levitt. “A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war on the truth. The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always attack . . . .
“The consultants are terrorists. Like political terrorists, the consultants’ attacks are intensely personal. . . . They invade people’s lives, demolish their friendships, crush their will, and shatter their families.”
Levitt’s memoir will surely be juicy ammunition for union organizers, who can wave it as “proof” that bosses are dirty rotten scoundrels. But how can a disinterested observer trust anything Levitt says? He is, after all, a confessed terrorist who states that he has been a professional liar for many years.
This sort of problem must come up all the time for people who work in the counterespionage section of the CIA. But it’s not something those of us in the labor movement have to worry about very much. We don’t get too many turncoats from the other side; the pay is so much better in management. (Levitt, as a matter of fact, reports that he briefly switched sides once before and spent a few months as a union organizer–but he didn’t last because the work was too hard and the expense accounts were too small.)
I don’t know if every single one of Levitt’s war stories about fighting unions is true from start to finish. But I do know that the core of his indictment against management sounds absolutely authentic. I’ve seen companies use all of the tactics he describes–harassment and firing of union activists, efforts to divide workers from one another, threats to leave town if the union wins–and so has anyone else who has ever been involved in union organizing.
Joining a union in America is a lot harder than joining, say, the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association. You can’t just sign a card, mail in your dues, and send your union rep in to ask your boss for a raise. Management has no legal obligation to talk to workers or their representatives about anything unless a union is “certified” as the bargaining agent for a given group of employees.
The lengthy and complex certification process usually requires a secret-ballot election in which a majority of the workers vote in favor of union representation. Because employers have so many ways to scare workers out of voting for a union, experienced labor organizers generally will not request an election until they’re confident they have a solid majority of supporters.
That’s where the Marty Levitts of the world come in. Their job–after landing a lucrative consulting contract from a frightened employer–is to turn a solid majority into a frustrated minority by the time election day rolls around.
Levitt got started in the field in 1969, after answering an ad for an “employee relations consultant” in the Wall Street Journal. He was hired by the Chicago-based firm John Sheridan Associates. That firm’s principal, John Sheridan–a former union organizer and a student of Saul Alinsky–was profiled in these pages in 1992. He makes no apologies for his current profession.
Under Sheridan’s tutelage, Levitt learned how to run a comprehensive antiunion campaign. His role as consultant, he writes, was to abuse, threaten, and intimidate lower management, which in turn was supposed to browbeat the work force. Meanwhile, company lawyers would use every available tactic to steal away the union’s momentum by delaying the election, and Levitt would direct a propaganda campaign intended to transform hated top executives into caring, sensitive leaders. (Without exception, Levitt reports, executives he encountered returned to their hateful ways the day after the company won the election.)
Levitt claims to have won all but a handful of several hundred antiunion campaigns. Losing now and then, however, wasn’t necessarily bad for business, because it gave him a chance to land another consulting job–this time to frustrate the union’s effort to secure a first contract.
Under U.S. labor law, even after a union is certified as a bargaining agent workers are merely entitled to meet with management to discuss wages and working conditions. There’s no guarantee that anything has to happen at those meetings. Management is only obliged to make a “good faith” effort to reach a contract settlement, or else face an unfair-labor-practice charge called “surface bargaining.”
But as Levitt relates, the penalties for surface bargaining are minimal–and it’s not too difficult to avoid getting charged in the first place. He describes a tense meeting with Claude Roe, executive director of the Copeland Oaks nursing home in Ohio, and Lou Davies, Copeland’s lawyer, shortly after the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) won an organizing election:
“Claude announced in a solemn voice that there was not to be a contract at Copeland Oaks. He turned to the attorney and commanded him to be Copeland’s representative at the bargaining table . . .
“‘I can’t do it Claude,’ he said. ‘I know you don’t intend to bargain in good faith. . . . It’s called surface bargaining and it’s against my professional code of conduct.’
“Claude frowned. . . . He turned to me. . . . Unlike Lou, I was not bound by any code of ethics or professional canons. . . . The law imposes on management and a newly elected union a ‘duty to bargain’ for twelve months, and no more. I figured I could jerk off the union for a year, no problem.”
Jerk them off he did. Levitt canceled some meetings, walked out on others, and now and then would sign off on a few minor items to defend against charges of surface bargaining. Meanwhile, Copeland Oaks opened a companion medical center under a different corporate structure, eliminated some jobs at the original nursing home, and required employees to reapply for the exact same positions at the new facility.
By amazing coincidence, 18 Copeland Oaks employees–all union supporters–wound up losing their jobs as a result of the shuffle of positions between the two facilities. Punitive action against union supporters is illegal, and a year and a half later the National Labor Relations Board ruled that all 18 were entitled to their jobs back with full compensation.
Too little, too late. By that time the required 12 months of “negotiations” were over, with no results whatsoever, and the Service Employees had formally withdrawn from its attempt to represent Copeland workers. Another union organizing effort down the drain–despite the fact that a majority of workers at Copeland Oaks voted in favor of union representation.
Of such stuff were Marty Levitt’s professional triumphs made. But lying, manipulation, and deceit eventually became a way of life, not just a way to earn a living. The charismatic, mercurial personality that made him a success at running antiunion motivational campaigns also made it difficult for Levitt to hold a job in anyone else’s organization.
For most of his career, Levitt worked as a free-lance consultant, commanding as much as $15,000 a month for his services. But he also enjoyed a lavish life-style, leading to severe financial problems. He tried to scam his way out through bad checks and phony loans, and wound up convicted of fraud.
Jetting around the country to break up union organizing drives, Levitt found plenty of opportunity to cheat on his wife, who he writes was only too happy to cheat back. All of this took place through a severe alcoholic haze that featured late-night drinking binges and bone-crunching hangovers.
“I fought hard to picture myself in an executive suite barking orders to some lowly sycophants,” writes Levitt after describing a series of especially tough mornings, “but another image superimposed itself on the first: that of a fat middle-aged man puking up eggs in a motel bathroom.”
In 1987 Levitt checked himself into an alcoholism-treatment facility in Minneapolis. One day, as part of a grouptherapy exercise, he told his life story–including a proud recounting of his work as “the biggest, baddest name in labor relations.” Afterward he was confronted by two of his fellow patients who were factory workers and union members.
The two men, Levitt writes, were “more hurt than angry . . . they just wanted to know what made me do it.” It was a question to which Levitt could no longer find a satisfactory answer. A few months later he disconnected his business phone, canceled his post office box, and called AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., to offer a public renunciation of union busting.
Union busting may no longer work as a career for Marty Levitt, but it still works well enough for corporations that are determined to maintain a “union-free environment.” just 12.7 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. are now in a union–the lowest ratio found in any industrialized nation.
Smaller, weaker unions translate into a decline in industry-wide wage and benefit standards that affects union and nonunion workers alike. The success of antiunion consultants is one of the primary reasons that American workers have suffered a loss in real wages in recent years.
There is no path to the “high-wage, high-skill” economy envisioned by the Clinton administration that does not include stronger, revitalized unions. But unless the rules of the game as described by Levitt are changed, it will be hard for unions to become stronger or more vital. There has been much public discussion lately about the need to protect workers’s rights in Mexico, China, and other foreign countries. Marty Levitt has made a valuable contribution by documenting, in painful detail, the abuse of working people that goes on every day right here.
Confessions of a Union Buster by Martin Jay Levitt with Terry Conrow, Crown, $22.50.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Charise Mericle.