labor “Democracy at Work Should Be a Right, Not a Fight.”
Marty Levitt, a union buster who waged a war against healthcare workers throughout the 70s and 80s when I was an organizer, called me up out of the blue some time in 1988. He said he had had a breakdown and a “religious” conversion. He wanted to write a tell-all book about what he had done to workers. He wanted to know if I thought there would be much interest in such a book. I told him yes but only if he told the total truth about what he had done. He poured out every shocking detail in “Confessions of a Union Buster.”
With renewed worker organizing and union busting by brand name companies like Amazon and Starbucks, Levitt’s book is even more relevant today than when he wrote it almost thirty years ago.
U. S. employer union busting is now the norm, not the exception. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that 41.5 percent of employers whose employees are organizing are charged with violating federal labor law. Another study found that 90 percent of employers held mandatory captive-audience meetings, and two thirds required workers to meet one-on-one with their supervisors at least weekly. Employers today spend $340 million a year on union busting.
Levitt's book came out in 2003, exposing his own 25 years of union busting. After another thirty years, this new edition raises the obvious question: What has a half century of union busting done to America? The answer is clear: frozen wages, grotesque inequality, and a fatally weakened American democracy.
Workers’ wages have actually declined over the last half century, while the U. S. economy tripled in size. In 1973, the average worker’s wage was $4.03/hr., equivalent in today’s purchasing power to $23.68. But the average wage per hour today is $22.68, a dollar an hour less than a half century ago, while from 1978 to 2018 CEO compensation increased by 940 percent!
Today there are 16 million union members, 10 percent of the workforce -- six percent in the private sector – the lowest since the late nineteenth century. In 1970, unions represented almost 27 percent of workers. If workers had been able to organize over the last half century, just to maintain that 27 percent rate, more than 40 million U.S. workers would today be union members. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania would not be “swing” states; Ohio and Iowa would not be solid red states. Trump could never have been elected president. And white workers would have been uniting with workers of color to fight their common enemy–corporate America–not siding with a far right nationalist party against other workers.
We have added an Appendix to this edition of “Confessions.” It outlines in detail how all 17 elements of the union busting system work together, illegally, to destroy what Levitt calls, “the collective spirit.” The key to this system is what employers do to each of their own individual employees who support the union.
First, employers and their union busters (“labor relations consultants”) create a dossier on each worker. Levitt says, “The buster not only is a terrorist; he is also a spy. My team and I routinely pried into workers’ police records, personnel files, credit histories, medical records, and family lives in search of a weakness that we could use to discredit union activists.”
Then they isolate and break down each worker, at first by one on one meetings with their supervisor, and then with repeated interrogation sessions with multiple managers.
Here’s what that means for a union activist.
A union activist rides to work with a co-worker who was promoted to supervisor a year earlier. The co-worker suddenly says she can’t ride with her anymore and also won’t be attending her birthday party or her daughter’s baby shower.
Her supervisor friend warns her, “for her own sake,” to stop wearing her union button.
At her annual evaluation, the activist learns that she has “developed a hostile attitude toward her co-workers and is neglecting her duties,'' which results in a reprimand and threat of termination.
Her long-term shift assignment is changed to nights, upending all childcare, meals, transportation, shopping, and cooking arrangements.
Her husband asks her to stop making his friends’ wives uncomfortable, and family tension mounts.
Human Resources (HR) repeatedly calls her in for meetings. Multiple managers interrogate and yell at her, for hours at a time. Week by week, her entire life spirals out of control.
I can recall countless activist workers whose employers systematically made it impossible for them to continue to support the union.
Jenna worked as an LPN in a hospital in central Illinois. She was a 22-year employee, one of the most respected in the hospital, and had several times been named Employee of the Year. She also was a union leader.
Management at first tried quietly to persuade her to stop organizing. She continued. They offered her a promotion outside the bargaining unit, with a wage increase. She turned them down and kept organizing. The hospital researched her recent divorce papers and started rumors about a “drug problem” in her family. She kept organizing.
Her son had chronic asthma and required constant care, which the hospital had routinely provided for years at below cost to employees. They called her in and said they would stop subsidizing his care and handed her a bill for back costs.
HR told her if she didn’t stop disrupting her unit, they would have to fire her. She called me and said she just couldn't keep going. The next day she went to work without her union button, and soon her co-workers took their buttons off their uniforms.
Levitt makes clear in his chapter “The Storm“ that he was just a tool of an outlaw, anti-union, corporate America. “There was a sort of romanticism involved in being a … gunslinger, coming in and busting a union,” Levitt writes. But he is clear that the employers – including the most prestigious corporate names in America – are the real culprits: “The(y) …are thugs,” Levitt said, “and their clients knew it.”
If employers were concerned about breaking the law, Levitt and the 3M busters told them not to worry: “If you are charged with unfair labor practices, we’ll settle them with a ‘non-admissions’ clause that we post in the bathroom. It has the status of toilet paper.”
American businesses in the 1970s, Levitt says, complained about foreign competition, inflation, the energy crisis, and recession, but none concerned them as much as unions. “The problem, our corporate captains worried, was the damn cost of labor.” Levitt makes clear it was corporate America – and “respectable” employers like FedEx, Nestle, Bed Bath & Beyond, Caterpillar, and “nonprofit” hospitals – who destroyed worker majorities supporting a union.
But by effectively putting an end to all union organizing, employers did more than freeze American workers’ wages. They destroyed the foundations of democracy. Levitt’s story is more important now than he could have known 30 years ago.
“Confessions of a Union Buster” tells, in sickening detail, how corporate and employer America successfully conspired to destroy one of the pillars of American democracy.
Yes, automation and anti-worker globalization rules reduced union membership over the last five decades, massively in basic industries like auto and steel. In 1975, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had 1.5 million members, almost all auto workers; today they have 400,000 members, and only 260,000 are auto workers.
This loss of bargaining power and political influence, however, is not the result of a “declining” UAW. In 1975 almost 100 percent of U.S. auto workers were union members. Today the UAW represents as few as 30 percent of U.S. auto workers. Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota, Subaru, Daimler, Hyundai, Kia, Fiat, BMW, and Honda have built 21 auto plants in the U.S. Today no workers in these plants have a union contract.
The UAW had majority support in new plants in Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina. In every plant the corporations’ union-busting destroyed those majorities. The power of auto workers through the UAW didn’t naturally “decline.” Union busting, as detailed by Levitt, violently, systematically, and illegally weakened the power of auto workers.
Without the organized voices of workers to counter the continuing concentration of corporate power we can’t have effective democracy. Unions are schools for workers. Studies show that workers who are active in their unions are better informed about public policy, more active in civic affairs, less open to authoritarian appeals, have more liberal views on issues like gun control, and have less racial prejudice. “Confessions of a Union Buster” documents the dirty underside of how U. S. corporations, who routinely bargain with unions in other countries, attacked and weakened American democracy. The question is, what can we do about it?
* * *
We know the best ways to beat the union busters. It starts with reading Levitt’s book. Know the enemy and take them as seriously as they take workers organizing a union. Commit the resources needed to win – 30 percent of a union budget is a goal. Orient the entire union -- volunteers, political operations, research, allies, training and education – toward organizing.
Never fall into the trap of talking or acting like “the union”--the third party the employer claims is just another business. Organize super majority support to be in a position to strike for recognition and a first contract. Build broad-based organizing committees. Make house visits but go beyond one-on-one contacts and engage in collective actions. Stay on the offensive.
But even doing everything “right” can’t guarantee winning against what is now normal employer union busting.
We must build a movement for workers’ rights so we can pass the PRO Act. The Act provides workers, not the employer, with the power to decide who is eligible to vote; speeds up the election process; establishes fines, civil penalties and individual liability for corporate officers who violate workers’ rights; calls for monetary damages for fired workers; sets a private right of action to file lawsuits against employers; provides for more aggressive injunctive relief; bans captive-audience meetings; gives workers access to company email systems for organizing; and requires employer disclosure of union-busting activities and how much the company spends on them.
But in the end the only effective way to end Levitt’s terrorist system is to take the employer entirely out of the decision-making process and require immediate recognition of employees’ choice with a show of majority union support, based on signed cards or petitions, either physical or digital.
* * *
In 1995, I invited Levitt to a weeklong Teamster organizing conference. He was already sick from the cancer that would take his life two years later. He spoke at length to 30 Teamsters about his career as a union buster. He told many of his favorite stories, including one about how he had to get rid of a key union leader who had a spotless work record. He said he had a supervisor plant some company tools in the back of the guy’s pickup truck. (Sometimes he told a version where he put the tools in a worker’s locker.) Then management “discovered” the stolen company property and fired him.
We were meeting in the beautiful, restored chapel at the National Labor College. When Levitt finished, there was total silence, reaching up to the chapel’s vaulted ceiling. The only sound was chairs scraping the floor as organizers got up and started pacing the room. Then these Teamsters, mostly truck drivers and warehouse workers who had lived through union-busting campaigns, erupted.
“Who are you?” one asked. “What kind of man would do that to other human beings?” another shouted. “How dare you come here and talk to us? I hope you rot in hell.” And much more, in Teamster words. For workers who finally met the evil face of union busting, there was no forgiveness, only loathing.
But Levitt told the truth. His book is more important and relevant today than when he wrote it. The book remains the definitive account of the dirty, terrorist, violent, illegal, war corporate America continues to wage against workers and American democracy. It serves as a guide for workers, organizers, and their supporters in how to overcome the union busters. It documents the need for federal legislation to stop employer interference in a decision that should be entirely up to workers. And it is a tribute to the countless thousands of union activists who fight every day with selfless courage for “the collective spirit” their employers seek to destroy. Their commitment to their co-workers, workers’ rights, and democracy are the real enduring story of “Confessions of a Union Buster.”
To purchase a copy of the book and for more information go to confessionsofaunionbuster.com
Bob Muehlenkamp is the former Executive Vice President and Organizing Director, 1199, National HealthCare Workers Union (SEIU) and Teamsters General Organizing Director