Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his coworkers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Alabama, only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.
But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his workstation, even to use the restroom, without permission.
As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.
Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers rather than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.
And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.
“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.
“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.
But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent during the first six months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but also workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.
So far, baristas have persisted in organizing about 200 stores, despite retaliation that includes the closure of unionized locations, the firing of union activists and the company’s withholding of pay raises for union workers. Instead of caving in to Starbucks’ bullying, workers filed ULP charges for these violations.
Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York also organized, despite the company’s rollout of an actual “playbook” to thwart union drives. In addition to holding captive audience meetings and plastering even the restrooms with anti-union messages, the company’s tactics include hiring “vulnerable students” to dilute pro-union sentiment and schmoozing politicians to burnish the company’s reputation.
Bulman knows how essential it is for union supporters to sustain their momentum because, as he and his coworkers learned at FreightCar America, only a union can bring lasting improvements to a workplace.
“They do a 180 and go back to what they were doing after you vote no,” he said, noting that companies may temporarily improve conditions to derail organizing efforts.
“They’re not going to tell the truth,” Bulman continued, noting FreightCar America moved the plant to Mexico even after workers voted down the union. “You’ve got to stick together and stand strong against them.”
As public approval of unions soars, corporations can feel the tide turning against them.
With President Joe Biden’s support, the House passed bipartisan legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—that would ban captive audience meetings, impose financial penalties on executives who block union drives and stop companies from stalling negotiations for a first contract.
The bill, not yet taken up in the Senate, also would fast-track legal proceedings for workers illegally suspended or fired for union activity, and it would give workers the right to sue employers for violating their labor rights.
“It would definitely level the playing field,” noted Mario Smith, recalling the heavy odds workers at Kumho Tire in Macon, Georgia, overcame to join the USW in 2021.
Kumho fired Smith, a leader of the organizing drive, amid a vicious union-busting campaign that included fearmongering, captive audience meetings, bullying of individual employees and anti-union videos running on an endless loop.
“It was indescribable,” Smith, who now works at a USW-represented paper mill, said of the toxic environment Kumho created to avoid giving workers a voice.
While denying workers a voice, however, hypocritical corporations exploit the tax code and force ordinary Americans to subsidize their hectoring and intimidation campaigns.
The No Tax Breaks for Union Busting Act, recently introduced in Congress, would change that. No longer would corporations be able to write off the costs of ad campaigns, union avoidance consultants and other anti-union activities.
“Corporations shouldn’t be interfering with workers’ right to organize,” Senator Bob Casey said in announcing the bill. “They certainly shouldn’t be able to write off anti-unionization campaigns as a business expense.”
After deciding against organizing, Bulman said, his colleagues at FreightCar America quickly realized that they’d been duped by the company’s lies about unions and manipulated by bosses who stoked their concerns about the plant’s future.
As it turned out, safety issues and other problems plagued the workers right up until the time the company abandoned the facility and shifted the jobs south of the border.
“They scared everybody into voting no,” Bulman recalled. “Fear is a great motivator. That’s exactly how they operate.”