Answering the Bosses’ Lies About Unions

In the costly series of mandatory meetings held in the summer of 2004, Emerald City management blasted the audience with videos made by union-busting corporations, which attempted to paint all unions as corrupt and self-interested. They also made many arguments attacking unions. Those workers supporting the union were not given an equal amount of time to respond to the charges.

“Unions are corrupt and are only interested in pocketing your union dues.”

No one can deny that there are some corrupt union officials. However, statistics show that only 1% of unions have been tainted with corruption. In comparison, 10% of corporations have been tainted with corruption. Owners of corporations – and the corporate-owned mass media – parade these examples of corrupt officials for a purpose. That’s because they are completely hostile to unions and want to confuse workers who are looking for unions to help them out.

Corruption of unions is always a two-way process involving management collusion. While management opposes unions, once a union is established, management tries to wine and dine union officials in order to get them to see issues their way. They attempt to get the union leadership to ignore their members’ interests by signing sweetheart deals. It’s usually in this situation that union officials get corrupted. The victims in this situation are the workers. Management then points the finger of corruption at the unions as a way of discrediting unions.

Real-life examples of corrupt union leaders living high on the hog off members’ dues are very rare. It is a scare tactic that management uses to stop our unions. The most recent and most publicized example was in the Teamsters Union in the 1970s and 1980s. However, what they don’t say is how workers in the Teamsters rose up against these leaders, who were voted out of office by a rank-and-file revolt. Union reform candidates were voted into the leadership of the Teamsters union in 1991.

As we mentioned earlier, most of the industries – like auto, steel, transportation, and construction – used to be low-wage jobs. It was only those workers’ determination to build unions that changed that. Higher wages, heath care, job security, etc., were won due to the workers’ determination to organize, see through the arguments of the boss, and fight for their rights.

Through unions, workers win better wages, benefits and a voice on the job – and good union jobs mean stronger communities. A few facts to consider:

  • Union workers earn an average of 26 percent more than nonunion workers and are more likely to receive health care and pension benefits than those without a union.
  • In 2002, median weekly earnings for full-time union wage and salary workers were $740, compared with $587 for their nonunion counterparts.
  • 79 percent of union workers are covered by pension plans, versus 44 percent of nonunion workers.
  • 70 percent of union workers have defined-benefit retirement coverage, compared with 16 percent of nonunion workers.

What the arguments of Emerald City management cannot explain away is: How come unionized workplaces pay higher wages and offer improved benefits compared to nonunion workplaces?

“Unions will take dues out of your paycheck, and you will be worse off than you are now.”

We need not fear unions. Yes, we will pay union dues, in the region of $20 or $30 a month. That goes to pay for the expenses of having a union ready and able to fight for our interests. But the argument of management leaves out the fact that a union contract will bring about a far greater improvement in our wages and conditions. The idea that we will be worse off with the union because we would have to pay dues is an attempt by management to confuse us, and has no truth in it.

Of course, Emerald City management matched this argument with their other assertion that they could not pay higher wages. We have already shown that Emerald City is quite capable of doing this if it is pressured to do so. That’s exactly why we are organizing.

But the advantages of a union go far beyond that. A union contract would spell out our rights as workers on issues such as discipline, seniority, job security, and other issues on the job. As members of the bargaining unit representing Emerald City workers, we would vote on a contract dealing with issues that affect us in our workplace. Once voted on, the union contract would set out the rights and privileges we have gained and establish a grievance procedure to hold management to this agreement. We would set up a steward system where we would have an elected representative on the job to deal with management when they attempted to break the contract.

Think about it. At present, we have no rights on the job. We have no defense against arbitrary and retaliatory actions by management. The union will be an instrument we can use to stand up to management to ensure they comply with the contract. That’s what management really fears: losing control of the workplace. That’s why they so ferociously oppose unions.

“Unions are outsiders. They will create an atmosphere of conflict between management and worker.”

It’s funny how management calls the union the “outsider.” It is us, as Emerald City workers, who are organizing the union. We are the organizing committee; we have discussions with our fellow workers and distribute our own material, not some outsider.

Yes, we know we need help from the union to negotiate with management. However, that union is made up of elected representatives from other workers in the restaurant and hotel industry who face situations similar to our own.

Our success in building a powerful union will depend on the willingness of workers to support and participate in this campaign. It is a myth that some “outside force” will be injected into the situation. We are the only “force” at work, not some “outsider.”

As for the argument that a union will spoil the relationship between management and workers, it’s exactly because management’s actions are hurting us that we are organizing a union in the first place! We have been forced to form a union to defend ourselves from management.

“The union is powerless to affect anything; they cannot win you any improvements.”

This claim has already been disproved in this campaign. We have already won a five-cent per delivery increase in compensation for the drivers. That was achieved as a result of only the beginning of our organizing drive.

Our power comes from our ability to act as one and stop production at Emerald City. That’s what will make the company start to make concessions, since they make money only when we work. That is the way we will be able to stand up to Emerald City and Pizza Hut and, for the first time, win some control over our workplace. That has to be our guiding light.

The U.S. working class is potentially the most powerful force in this society. Fighting unions won all the benefits now enjoyed by workers over the last 50 years. Dedicated and militant union leaders who looked to mobilize the power of the U.S. working class – backed by an active and educated membership – were able to force management to give back some of their profits to workers. This is how the labor movement was built. This is what it took to stand up to and defeat General Motors – to defeat them through a 44-day sit-down strike in 1936. It is this tradition that we want to build upon. This is the kind of union we aim to build.

By being members of a union, we will join the labor movement. We would then be able to call on other unions and workers to help us in our struggles. For example, Teamster members have language in their contract giving them the right not to deliver goods across a picket line. If we went on strike, this would enormously frustrate any attempt by management to continue doing business. By organizing a union, we become much stronger because we’re part of the wider labor movement.

“We are your friends. Come to us to talk about your concerns, you don’t need a union to represent you.”

Yes, management has become friendlier in the last couple of months. But we have to ask why. If they are friendly now, but were not before, what does that tell us about their motives? The answer is that management is trying to get savvy. It is part of the “carrot and stick” strategy. They have become better trained by anti-union companies in “how to confuse workers by calling them team members.” We shouldn’t buy it.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes the practices of McDonald’s: “The company developed sophisticated methods for keeping unions out of its restaurants. A “flying squad” of experienced managers and corporate executives was sent to a restaurant the moment union activity was suspected. Seemingly informal ‘rap sessions’ were held with disgruntled employees. The workers were encouraged to share their feelings. They were flattered and stroked. And more importantly, they were encouraged to share information about the union’s plans and the names of the union sympathizers. If the rap sessions failed to provide adequate information, the stroking was abandoned for a more direct approach. … The company’s guidance has helped McDonald’s franchises defeat literally hundreds of efforts to unionize.”

At a recent Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators Convention, filled with the CEOs of the major fast-food corporations, a discussion developed about how to overcome a lack of low-wage workers and on the possible need to move the industry from a workforce based on “low wages” and “high levels of turnover” to one that would “create long-term careers in foodservice.” The issue of how to fight unions came up. David Novak, president of Yum! Brands, Inc., who is Emerald City’s boss, described his strategy of giving pep talks, prizes, and special awards of plastic chili peppers and rubber chickens. He said that giving employees awards creates a greater sense of pride and esteem, and shows that management is watching, and that it does not cost a lot of money. He said, “We want to be a great Company for the people who make it great” (Fast Food Nation, p. 88).

Pizza Hut calls this the “CHAMPS” program, but a more appropriate name might be the “CHUMPS” program. The idea is basically this: Don’t pay workers a decent wage for busting their asses; instead, just give the drooling idiots a cheap card with gold stickers and some glitter on it. Then, like good little monkeys, they’ll think that means the company loves them and they’ll work twice as hard so they can get more glitter and gold stickers.

The end result: High productivity with low pay – more money for Terry Hopkins and David Novak. The bottom line is the dollar sign.

Don’t be a chump. Yes, management may be more pleasant to us as workers now. But that’s based on the their own self-interest to prevent the union growing. It doesn’t replace a decent pay raise. If we drop our campaign, the smiles will go away.

The Rumor: Will management just close a store if we organize?

Yes, if they can get away with it. The fast-food industry is vehemently anti-union, jealously defending their wealth and profits. They will close one store if they think that will isolate a union.

For example, in February 1997, workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in St. Hubert, a suburb of Montreal, applied to join the Teamsters union. More than three-quarters of the crew members signed union cards. McDonald’s fought this in the courts for a year. A final certification hearing was planned for March 10, 1998. But before the hearing could be held, McDonald’s shut down the store for good. Management claimed it was a money-loser, though it had operated continuously at the same location for 17 years.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes another example: “During the early 1970s, workers were successfully organizing a McDonald’s in Lansing, Michigan. All the crew members were fired, the restaurant was shut down, a new McDonald’s was built down the block and the workers who’d signed union cards were not rehired.”

We need to learn a lesson from this. This is the reason we cannot build a union in one store at Emerald City. We know we have to organize citywide in the Tacoma area. We know they will not close all the stores in the Tacoma area. If they do, they will lose all their profits and that’s what they are after. We know this makes our task harder task, but this is the only way to prevent management from closing one store and defeating us. We have a lot of support in some Tacoma stores and aim to continue building support in the other stores. This will give us much more power to force the company to negotiate with us.

The strategy of “threatening to close the store” is a weapon that is open only to the larger franchises. Most local fast-food chains don’t have the capital to pull such a thing off. It is only an idle threat to try to intimidate us. The bottom line is that the big fast-food chains are not going to abandon the Tacoma area as a source of income to be exploited by their rivals. We have to demand they pay a living wage if they want to do business in Tacoma.