A Cornell survey of trends in union intimidation released today is likely to provide labor supporters some critical talking points in their endless struggle to pass a “card check” bill aimed at making said tactics tougher to pull off.
It’s called NO HOLDS BARRED: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing and the first company it singles out for strongarm tactics is…a healthy baked goods company called Earthgrains!
Until relatively recently, the report says, the St. Louis-based Earthgrains had “a history of maintaining a stable collective bargaining relationship with the majority of [its] workforce.” All that changed in 2000, when its Kentucky plant tried to organize — and Earthgrains responded by videotaping employees talking to union representatives, publicly confiscating any union literature the reps distributed, interrogating employees about whether their co-workers supported unions, maintaining to know how other workers planned to vote, and outright threatening their jobs and retirement plans. Such tactics are now “standard practice,” according to the study of 1,004 union organizing drives between 1999 and 2003, in which management threatened to close plants in 57 percent of the campaigns and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent. (Electronic surveillance and attempting to infiltrate the organizing committee were less common tactics, used in 11% and 28% of campaigns, respectively.)
What distinguishes the current organizing climate from previous decades of employer opposition to unions? The primary difference is that the most intense and aggressive anti-union campaign strategies, the kind previously found only at employers like Wal-Mart, are no longer reserved for a select coterie of extreme anti-union employers.The report cites the campaigns for the ever-widening gap between the percentage of American non-managerial workers who say they would vote for a union — higher than ever at 55% — and the actual union density, which stands at 12.4%, and blames “deregulation, investor-centered trade and investment policies, and an underfunded and disempowered National Labor Relations Board” on what it terms “the rise of the union avoidance industry.” But let’s go back to Earthgrains for a minute.
Before it took on the earthy name of one of its bread brands, Campbell Taggart was one of the nation’s largest bread makers and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the megabrewer Anheuser-Busch. In 1995, at the beginning of the stock market boom, Anheuser-Busch decided to spin the company off as its own corporate entity, renaming the company Earthbrands.
It’s a case that might shed a bit of light on the dramatic increase support for unions among non-managerial workers, who only supported their unions by mid-30% margins in the 80s, according to the report:
When Anheuser-Busch executive Barry Beracha, who was slated to become the CEO of the newly liberated Earthgrains, visited workers at the company’s Charlotte plant to tell them about the spinoff in August of 1995, he assured them the new name would not affect their jobs — only to send them notices the plant would be shutting in February three months later, according to a lawsuit filed the next year by employees charging negligent representation.
In 2001 Beracha sold Earthgrains to Sara Lee in a deal that netted him at least $50 million in stock options. The employees’ suit was dismissed in 2003 by North Carolina Appeals Court Judge Patricia Timmons-Goodson, who ruled that Beracha’s only fiduciary duties ran to the company, not its employees.
Which is fair enough, we guess, but it’s worth pointing out that whoever had the legal duty to care about anyone’s employees during those years — say, the Labor Department — was not taking it very seriously.
Beracha, for the record gave money to John McCain in the presidential election. Timmons-Goodson is a lifelong Democrat.